Joseph Emidy: Slave, Musician, Landsman

Joseph Antonio Emidy (1775 – 23 April 1835) was a slave in early life, but later became a famous and celebrated violinist and composer. However, his life took a strange turn when he was pressed into service in the British Royal Navy.

The following is an excerpt from the text of a talk given by Matthew Spriggs to the Cornish Association of the ACT. It was written in 1993 and revised in 1994, and is heavily based on Richard McGrady’s Music and Musicians in Early Nineteenth Century Cornwall (seriously, we needed an entire book about this?).

The life of Joseph Emidy can be gleaned mainly from the autobiography of the anti-slaverypolitician James Silk Buckingham, born at Flushing 1786, died 1865, and resident in Falmouth for two years in his late teens with the support of his “fond and indulgent parent”. In the autobiography he recounts how he came to meet Emidy:

During this period I began the study of music, finding it a most agreeable recommendation in female society, of which I was always fond; and as I decided to be placed as speedily as possible in the way of turning this acquisition to practical account, I selected the flute as the instrument on which tolerable perfection is soonest attained, and as having the further advantage of portability and convenience. The only teacher procurable at Falmouth was an African negro, named Emidee, who was a general proficient in the art, an exquisite violinist, a good composer, who led at all the concerts of thecounty, and who taught equally well the piano, violin, violoncello, clarionetand flute. I placed myself under his tuition for an hour’s daily lesson underhis own eye, and four hours‘ daily practice beside…(Buckingham 1855 p.166, quoted in McGrady, p.10)

Buckingham does not tell us if his flute playing led to any practical advantage in his pursuit of the ladies, but his tuition did have one lasting effect. In learning of Emidy’s life story, which he gives an account of up to 1807, Buckingham developed a sympathy for the plight of African and other slaves which led him in his later years as a politician to be a staunch opponent of the slave trade. He gives the bare bones of Emidy’s early life.

He was bom in Guinea, on the West Coast of Africa, sold into slavery to some Portuguese traders, taken by them to the Brazils when quite a boy, and ultimately came to Lisbon with his owner or master. Here he manifested such a love for music, that he was supplied with a violin and a teacher; and in the course of three or four years he became sufficiently proficient to beadmitted as one of the second violins in the orchestra of the opera at Lisbon (Buckingham 1855 p.167, quoted in McGrady, pp.15, 16).

This account requires some background. Portugal had a long involvement in the slave trade buthad a reputation as the most humane of the slaving nations. Most slaves were sent to theplantations in Brazil. There, many converted to Christianity and were able to take part in the sociallife of the colony. Blacks and whites could mix freely, slaves were given their own plots of landto cultivate and they were allowed to sell their produce in the markets. Between 1780 and 1790 -the likely period for Emidy’s transportation as according to his gravestone he was bom around1775 – Portugal transported 178,000 slaves to Brazil, the majority coming from what is now Angola.

As a child or young teenager it is probable that he was assigned as someone’s personal attendant rather than as a plantation worker. At the time it was fashionable in Portugal to have a few black servants in one’s house and it is presumed he went to Lisbon as part of some nobleman or merchant’s retinue. He left Lisbon in 1795 and by then was already a second violin in the Opera, a fine achievement for anyone in their late teens or early 20s. For a slave whose exposure to European culture can only have been brief it was truly remarkable. Credit must also be given to his master who allowed him to develop his natural talent and gain employment as a professional musician.

His life was to change radically again in 1795, all because of a partly submerged rock in thesea off Cape Finisterre. This rock was in the way when the British frigate Indefatigable, out of Falmouth and commanded by Sir Edward Pellew, was pursuing a French fleet on 7 May 1795 during the war with France. Badly damaged by the rock, the Indefatigable put into the Tagus River in Lisbon for repairs. Buckingham again takes up the story:

While thus employed [as violinist at the Lisbon opera], it happened that Sir Edward Pellew, in his frigate the Indefatigable, visited the Tagus, and with some of his officers, attended the Opera. They had long wanted for the frigate a good violin player, to furnish music for the sailors’ dancing in their evening leisure, a recreation highly favourable to the preservation of their good spirits and contentment. Sir Edward, observing the energy with which the young negro plied his violin in the orchestra, conceived the idea of impressing him for the service. He accordingly instructed one of his lieutenants to take two or three of the boat’s crew, then waiting to convey the officers on board, and watching the boy’s exit from the theatre, to kidnap him, violin and all, and take him off to the ship. This was done, and the next day the frigate sailed: so that all hope of his escape was vain (Buckingham 1855 pp. 167-68, quoted in McGrady, pp.25-26).

Some further details appear from the ship’s muster, May 1 to June 30, recording 100 supernumeraries on board for whom payment was claimed for victualling. Number 496 of all crew and others employed on 24 June 1795 is “Josh. Emedee”. For the period 1 July – 30 August supernumeraries are down to nine, three of whom, including Emidy, are described as “Lisbon volunteers”. The Indefatigable finally left Lisbon on 8 July. In the muster books after 1 September, Emidy is listed as number 316 of the ship’s crew as a Landsman, the lowest rank of sailors, and was paid, along with the two other Portuguese, at 16/6dper month. For comparison, an Ordinary Seaman received 17/6d and an Able Seaman £1-2/6d. Buckingham writes, here clearly expressing some of Emidy’s own disgust at his treatment:

Poor Emidee was thus forced, against his will, to descend from the higher regions of music in which he delighted – Gluck, Haydn, Cimarosa, and Mozart, to desecrate his violin to hompipes, jigs, and reels, which he loathed and detested: and being, moreover, the only negro on board, he had to mess by himself, and was looked down upon as an inferior being – except when playing to the sailors, when he was of course in high favour. As the captain and officers judged, from his conduct and expressions, that he was intensely disgusted with his present mode of life, and would escape at the first possible opportunity, he was never permitted to set his foot on shore for seven long years! and was only released by Sir Edward Pellew being appointed to the command of a line-of-battle ship, L’Impetueux, when he was permitted to leave in the harbour of Falmouth, where he first landed, and remained, I believe, till the period of his death (Buckingham 1855 pp. 168-89, quoted inMcGrady, p.26).

Navy records show that Emidy was actually held for under four years, not seven as Buckingham claimed. The event that gave him his freedom was Pellew’s transfer to command of the captured French ship, L’Impetueux, on 1 March 1799. Change in command of a naval shipwas always the occasion for a major reorganisation of the crew. Many sailors would follow a successful captain to his new command. Emidy was discharged at Falmouth on 28 February 1799.

Courtesy of Matthew Spriggs.
Image: The only known drawing of Joseph Emidy, A Musical Club in Truro, artist unknown. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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