There are many examples of Black men who served in the British
army and the Royal Navy as musicians, drummers and trumpeters.
Less well known are those who were professional or amateur
musicians. Black artists from a variety of social backgrounds
were performing in Britain from the 16th century. One such
was Julius Soubise, the son of a Jamaican slave and protégé
of the Duchess of Queensberry, who was a keen violinist.
'Juba' at Vauxhall Gardens
Joseph Emidy, Acclaimed Teacher
Those who made a name for themselves in the world of professional
music often came from a background of enslavement. One such
musician was captured by the Portuguese from the Guinea coast
and sold into slavery in Brazil. Around 1795, 'Josh Emede'
(as he is called in the ship's records of the Indefatigable)
was forced by the British navy to play reels and jigs for
the crew. Later known as Joseph Emidy, he settled in Falmouth,
a cosmopolitan community at the time. A classical musician,
he earned his living as a music teacher, giving lessons for
a variety of instruments, including the piano, violin, cello
and flute. Emidy's skills as a teacher and concert musician
seem to have been in high demand, as requests for his services
appeared in Falmouth and Truro newspapers.
'A Musical Club, Truro'
George Bridgetower, Close Friend of Beethoven
Polish-born George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was the
son of a self-proclaimed African prince and a Polish woman.
He played the piano and the violin and was a friend of Ludwig
van Beethoven. Beethoven wrote the famous Kreutzer Sonata
in May 1803 specially for Bridgetower, and together they played
in Vienna. Letters written by Beethoven introducing Bridgetower
to Viennese society show that the two men were close friends.
One particularly cordial letter, possibly written after their
May performance, says 'Be so kind as to wait for me
at half past one at Taroni's coffee house…we shall
then go to the Countess Guicciardi's where you have
been invited to dinner. Signed Beethoven.'
From the age of 10, Bridgetower appears to have been held
in high esteem in London musical circles. He accompanied another
young violinist at a concert under the patronage of the Prince
of Wales (later George IV) on 2 June 1790. At the Handel Commemoration
in Westminster Abbey, Bridgetower and another young man, both
dressed in scarlet coats, helped to pull out the stops for
the organists. Bridgetower toured England and Europe giving
concerts in Bath, Rome, Dresden and Vienna. He married an
English woman, and records show that he died on 10 September
1859 in Peckham, London.
Buskers and Street Musicians
As well as highly acclaimed professional musicians like Emidy
and Bridgetower, there were Black street buskers who entertained
London's public. Billy Waters,
a fiddler, was one such character and a common sight outside
the Adelphi Theatre, in the Strand, in the 1780s. Identifiable
by his wooden leg and military-style outfit, he was famously
caricatured by the cartoonist George Cruickshank.
Billy Waters may have ended up on the streets of London as
one of the Black poor
who had fought in the American War of Independence. From
workhouse records, it seems that Billy became ill and spent
his final days at St Giles's Workhouse where he was
elected 'the king of beggars'. A verse from his
Thus poor Black Billy's made his
His Property was small good lack,
For till the day death did him kill
His house he carried on his back.
The Adelphi now may say alas!
And to his memory raise a stone:
Their gold will be exchanged for brass,
Since poor Black Billy's dead and gone.
Billy Waters - Soldier, Actor and Musician
References and Further Reading
Buckingham, James Silk, Autobiography (2 vols),
Edwards, P., and Walvin, J., Black Personalities in the
Era of the Slave Trade, London, 1983
McGrady, R., Music and Musicians in Early Nineteenth
Century Cornwall: The World of Joseph Emidy - Slave
Violinist and Composer c.1770-1859, Exeter, 1991
Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833,
London, New York and Ibadan, 1977
Young, L., 'My Hero Joseph Emidy', BBC History,