Timeline: Chevalier Part 2 - Dear 'ole dad
Timeline is diving into the life of 18th century, French composer Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges. In this episode we'll learn about Chevalier’s parents and especially his aristocratic father.
Just a quick content warning before we begin. This episode will make references to sexual assault and might be triggering for some listeners.
Together we’re exploring this question that I received from listener Janet Watton of Randolph Center.
Janet Watton: Why was Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who was so prominent during his time, now unknown in our time?
James Stewart: In order to answer this question we need to start off with a caveat or two. Not everyone agrees on this history. There are conflicting accounts and weird discrepancies that make it a little confusing. So the story we’re going to tell is just one perspective of the historical accounts. There are many resources out there if anyone wants to go a little deeper.
The story begins against the backdrop of the First French Colonial Empire of the 18th century that stretched from Illinois to the African coast. It was an empire of trade and commerce, building cities like New Orleans, Saint-Louis and Chicago as well as Montreal, Quebec and Port-au-prince. So much of this empire and the wealth it amassed was built on the backs of enslaved individuals.
Chevalier’s father, George, was born into a long line of colonists. The family owned extensive sugar and coffee plantations in Guadeloupe and beyond, meaning they were quite wealthy and participated in slavery. The Bologne family was deep in the aristocracy of France and many of the men had risen to places of prominence in the French military. George (dad) married Elizabeth and they had a daughter, also named Elizabeth (half-sister). According to many official records, Elizabeth was George’s only child; she wasn’t, but… I’m getting ahead of myself.
A few years after his daughter was born, George was visiting an uncle and got into a fight with another individual. The man was wounded, cut on the nose. We’re not sure about the extent of the injury, but this injured man said he was fine and went home. The wound became infected and the man died three days later. George was accused of murder and ran away, going into exile. That didn’t matter to the authorities. They still had a trial and sentenced George to death, in absentia. That means that they hung an effigy of George and stripped him of his name, lands and wealth. To the French government and society, he was dead.
Now in exile, it’s believed that George fled to St. Domingue, modern day Haiti, and he didn’t go alone. He brought along some enslaved individuals that had been a part of his household. One of these was a 16-year-old girl, originally from Senegal. We don’t know her name, but the historical accounts refer to her as Nanon. The accounts also make it a point to mention her great beauty. You can see where this is going. Nanon gave birth to George’s son, Joseph on Christmas Day, 1748. (Some accounts say 1745, but this was the date that Joseph used himself).
A few years down the road, George is pardoned for murder, meaning it’s a good thing they didn’t hang him for real. George’s land and prestige were reinstated and he used this newly regained power to send Joseph to school in France around the age of seven. In time, George was given a noble title as a Gentlemen of the King’s Chambers and returned to France with his legal wife, Elizabeth, his daughter, Elizabeth and his mistress, Nanon (Joseph’s mother). They were one big happy family.
Myra Flynn: Sounds like, yeah, just like the Brady Bunch, James.
James Stewart: That’s my colleague, Myra Flynn, the creator and host of another podcast here at Vermont Public, Homegoings. I gave her a preview of this story and when we got to this point Myra made it clear that George (Joseph’s father) shouldn’t be praised for providing for his son.
Myra Flynn: It’s hard to back-pat him, right? Because it’s like, 'Yeah, like great, you took care of your family.' I mean, you know, the continued rape of slaves and the children born of that rape. And the notion, or the story that they were given privilege, or privileges to say, work in the house, or, you know, essentially protected by the person who raped their mother, and shouldn’t they feel lucky for that? So that’s a little old hat.
James Stewart: It’s a point well taken and one worth remembering as we continue. In our next episode we’ll follow Joseph through his school years and development as a fencing legend, violinist, conductor and composer. Stay with us and follow the Timeline.