The Assassination Attempt on le Chevalier de Saint George

Le Chevalier de Saint George. Sounds like a character out of Les Liasons Dangereuses, doesn’t it?  All swash, buckle, dash and derrring-do, with a little flouncy-frill thrown in for good measure.

And there’s a reason for that. AKA Le Mozart-Noir, Le Don Juan-Noir and even God of Arms, the Chevalier – Franco-Caribbean playboy, master swordsman, inspired composer and intimate friend of Marie Antoinette – was also best mates with Choderlos de Laclos, who wrote the novel. And judging from this extraordinary young man’s life, one can only speculate as to how much of it was based on the Chevalier himself…

Walk around practically any small town in France and you’ll find a Rue Le Chevalier de St George – he’s something of a national hero there – and yet here he’s practically unknown. We’ve even forgotten that someone tried to kill him in Greenwich Park in 1790.

But to skip straight to the (literal) chase would be to miss out on one hell of a story.

Being born to a Senagalese slave on a Guadaloupe sugar plantation wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a silver spoon for young Joseph Bologne’s mouth, however remarkable his mother’s beauty. Of course having a father who happened to be George de Bologne de Saint Georges, the plantation owner, did help. History doesn’t record what Madamede Boglone de Saint Georges thought when her slave presented her husband with a baby boy on Christmas Day in 1745, but since Madame herself  had only produced a girl, she was probably expected to grin and bear it. Nanon was kept within the family (presumably still as a slave)  and the young Joseph was welcomed – doted upon, encouraged to study the arts, music and fencing though it was made quite clear he would never inherit his father’s land because he was mulatto (as offensive then as it is now).

The bizarre menage-a-cinqwas forced to leave the island in a hurry when George killed a man in a drunken duel and, faced with a death sentence, hot-footed it to France. Once there. young Jospeh was enrolled into an elite fencing academy where he regularly whooped the asses of his fellow pupils, then made everyone sick with envy as a horseman. I’m really not making it up when I say he then joined the King’s Musketeers, which suddenly turns him into something out of a Dumas novel too (and yes, he was a friend of Dumas-pere, too). He was not only tall, slim, athletic and good looking, his colour also made him exotic - a novelty – and Paris fell in love with him. Few would knowingly challenge him to a duel, and on one occasion, when a violinist whose work he admired made the silly mistake of throwing down the gauntlet, the gallant Chevalier refused, knowing he’d only beat the poor lug and he liked his playing too much to injure his hands.

It was all going swimmingly. With the other string to his bow, de Saint George had suddenly found himself the music tutor of none other than Marie Antoinette, who described him as ‘my favourite American.’ Various seedy speculators have nudged and winked about their relationship beyond the pedals of her spinet, but I couldn’t possibly know.

The only real difference that came when his father died and a right-royal bunfight broke out over the inheritance was that he and his mum suddenly had to rely on whatever he could earn – he was never in the running for the cash (or debts – George, without a trace of irony,  had borrowed large sums of money ‘to buy negroes’ and had neglected to pay it back. ) He turned to composing, and while his operas didn’t quite hit the mark, his violin concerti were fabulous.

His old mucker, Marie Antoinette, put him up for Artistic Director of the Royal Academy of Music, but it was kiboshed by a particularly nasty petition arranged by various artists who, while acknowledging that he was one hell of a composer, with gentle manners, remarkable talent as well as being an all-round good-egg, didn’t like the idea of being directed by a mulatto.

And now we start to get to the assassination attempts. Despite being talented, handsome and skillful, he had also committed the heinous sin of being black in a society that liked to enjoy ‘exotic’ people but didn’t like to let them have any kind of power. He found himself in a weird world where he was feted wherever he went, but prevented from even basic human relationships – marriage between a black man and a white woman was outlawed (at least it wasn’t punishable by death as it was in the colonies) and although that certainly doesn’t seem to have prevented less formal arrangements, on the one occasion when an aristocratic woman gave birth to a suspiciously dark-skinned baby, it was left to die.

The first assassination attempt was in 1779. Six unknown assassins attacked the Chevalier and his friends on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. They fought and were eventually saved by the night watch, who arrested several men. De Saint George’s friend, the Duc D’Orleans, demanded a thorough investigation into the affair, but just two days later, the Duc was told by someone in authority not to meddle. The prisoners, who turned out to be policemen (including one well-known detective) were released and the affair hushed up.

The Chevalier went to England, where he fell in love with the fashions of the day, performed an exhibition fencing duel with the cross-dressing, not-very-secret secret agent the Chevalier D’Eon (known as the Chevaliere) before the Prince of Wales. (Thanks Mary, for qualifying that and for telling me about the surreal painting of the match …)

For all his flash, though, and despite living among the elite of society, De Saint George was always only too aware of his precarious position – and that if he experienced social inequality there were thousands far worse than him. He became more and more clear about his understandably anti-slavery stance and when the French Revolution began, he embraced it wholeheartedly. 

He was back in England in 1790, with his co-abolitionist friend, the Duc D’Orleans. He’d been invited to ‘make music’ in a house in Greenwich, and was quietly walking through the park when he was attacked by a ‘robber’ with a gun. The Chevalier fought him off, only to be assaulted by four more masked men with pistols. It says something about his fencing prowess that he fought them off, too, armed with his violin and a stick. I don’t know whether he made it to the house or not, or even which house it might have been. I wonder if it still exists. I find myself wondering if it could have been 111 Maze Hill. Olaudah Equiano was up in Cambridgeshire by then (though a ferocious anti-slavery campaigner, perhaps he met the Chevalier) but perhaps the Guerin sisters who had taken him in all those years ago or their descendents would still have been there.  It’s too late for Ignatius Sancho, who died in 1780.

It’s been argued that the assassination was planned by wealthy plantation owners who were irritated by the abolitionist movement, so flamboyantly personified by this attractive, talented and therefore dangerous black man. Certainly for every Guerin sister there were several wealthy Greenwichian members of the slave cartel.

Sadly for this extraordinary character, things didn’t end well. He was excited by the revolution, and even enlisted in the national guard as part of a regiment of men of colour. He became a Colonel; his lieutenant was one Alexandre Dumas. His regiment even became known as the Legion Saint George. For a time, he led several successful campaigns, but , as part of the ancien regime he was treated with suspicion and eventually he was accused of misusing funds, the voices of dissent even including Dumas. He was imprisoned without trial.  He was eventually released, but spent the rest of his life alone and in poverty, in a Parisian garret and died in 1799.

But what a man. And what a story…

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7 Comments to “The Assassination Attempt on le Chevalier de Saint George”

  1. will says:

    Cracking post Phant

    I’ve spent most of my lunch hour reading up about Saint George and Equiano and I never expected that when I clicked on the page. The sign of a great blog that we never know where you’ll take us.

  2. Mary says:

    Phantom – bit confused by this – and I am writing this from memory, so I could be wrong. I think the crossdresser was the spy, the Chevalier D’Eon, and it was with him that St.George had the exhibition sword fight, not with the Prince of Wales.
    This is recounted by George Landmann (the Woolwich born soldier who built the Greenwich Railway) since he was taken to see the fight as a small boy and so described it in old age – and I think there is a print of the fight.

  3. OOps – better check that out, Mary. I confess I got a bit confused at that bit…

  4. Ah, yes. That’s what comes of trying to avoid Wikipedia… I’ll change it now.

  5. Meirion says:

    Thanks Phantom I’d never heard of St George either until your post but the second chapter of George Landmann’s memoirs on Google Books has a great account of “the celebrated St George, a man of coloour, by far the most expert swordsman of his day” humiliating the fencing master of the Royal Military Academy in the back garden of Landmann’s dad’s house. I suppose the link is going to bust the neat borders of the column again but never mind.

  6. TPlautus says:

    I seem to recall that Radio 3 featured the Chevalier’s music a few years ago. Didn’t know he had a connection with Greenwich.

    Dumas père was also of European / Afro-Caribbean parentage.

  7. Angela says:

    I have discovered this gentleman only recently and I am amazed by how talented he was and equally puzzled that his genius is not recognised in France (or should I not be surprised given the feelings people had and still hold about people of colour?

    Please also link this gentleman with Julius Soubise who attended the same fencing acadamey (Domenico Angelo’s fencing acedemy) to which St-Georges was a welcomed guest.