The Historical Biography of Joseph Bologne
(Le Chevalier de Saint George)
The Remarkable Life of a Superman Revisited
Edited By Tony Dunoyer
Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George, was born on Christmas
day, 1745, on the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. His mother
was a young Senegalese slave of remarkable beauty. Joseph’s
father, George de Bologne Saint-George, a descendant of the ancient
house of Bologne in Italy, was a wealthy sugar and coffee plantation
owner and a former "Gentleman in the King’s Chamber" in
the court of Louis the XV, King of France.
Musically Saint George may very well have been the "King of
Pop" of his age; militarily he helped prevent what could have
been the early collapse of the French Revolution. The vicissitudes
of his journey are dramatic: from a young outsider in Paris to the
dizzying heights of superstardom in pre-Revolutionary France ("The
Famous Saint George") to an utterly tragic end in which a man
whose company had once been fought over by royalty and great aristocrats,
died alone, unmarried and destitute. In his lifetime Saint George
was a an elite musketeer of the King’s Horse Guard; a master-swordsman
and Europe’s fencing champion; a composer, violin impresario,
and opera director that influenced Mozart; a playboy; and a military
hero in the French Revolution—ironically all in an age when
slavery was endemic and white superiority was dogma.
Mother and Father
Not much is known of Saint George’s mother who was given the
name "Nanon". Initially Nanon must have been one of the
Bologne-Saint-George’s household slaves. The famous swordsman
Henry Angelo claimed that Saint George’s mother Nanon was "one
of the most beautiful women that Africa has ever sent to the plantations" and
that "St-Georges combined in his person his mother’s grace
and good looks and his father’s vigor and assurance".
It is unclear as to whether Nanon was born in Guadeloupe or if she
survived the hellish three-month "middle passage" in
the hull of a slave ship. However given numerous accounts of her
as "Senegalese" it is likely that she did endure the "middle
passage" as a young girl because the original African homeland
of slaves that were born locally on plantations was rarely referred
Whatever her precise geographic origin, Nanon apparently went on
to eventually enjoy a relatively honorable position (considering
the time) in the Bologne household and was treated more like a second
wife and less like a slave. Although seemingly unusual at first glance,
Nanon’s position was actually fairly common. Slavery in the
US also featured distinctions between "house" and "field" slaves
that were sometimes worlds apart.
Recent research has established that Saint George’s father
was George de Bologne Saint-George, (b. 1710) a former Gentleman
of the King’s (Louis XV) Bedchamber and an important planter
at Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe. George de Bologne was the son of Pierre
de Bologne I, a wealthy colonist and major in the Lonvilliers regiment
in Guadeloupe. According to a petition Pierre de Bologne II (George’s
elder brother and Saint George’s uncle) made in 1769-1770,
the family traced its descent from the "noble and ancient house
of Bologne, originating in Italy, and from the city of that name".
Pierre de Bologne II acquired a significant reputation as a poet
and was admitted to the Academy of the Inestricati of Bologne in
Italy. The Bologne family owned thriving sugar and coffee plantations
and many of them held senior ranks in the colony’s armed forces.
George de Bologne Saint-George (b.1710) married Elizabeth Françoise
Jeanne Mérican on 8 September 1739 and on 21 January 1740,
a daughter was born, Elizabeth Bénédictine de Bologne,
the only child whose name appears in any of the existing documentation
concerning the family. There is, however, one exception to this.
In a statement written around 1782 in connection with a dispute between
the parish and the Bologne family over its burial rights in the chapel
of the Holy Virgin of the church of St-François in Basse-Terre,
the parish priest wrote that Bologne St-George had two children, "a
girl and a boy, both living in France". The "boy" is
believed to be Joseph de Bologne Saint George aka the Chevalier de
In 1747, while paying a visit to his uncle Samuel de Bologne, George
de Bologne became involved in a scuffle with a fellow guest. Le Vanier
St-Robert was wounded on the nose but was able to return home unaided.
Three days later St-Robert died, probably of infection rather than
from the wound itself, and George found himself accused of murder.
He fled Basse-Terre and on March 31, 1748 was convicted and sentenced
in absentia to "be hanged and strangled until death ensues on
the gallows erected in the corner of the public square in this town
of Basseterre". George had all of his goods confiscated. The
hanging was carried out in effigy on 25 October 1748. It is believed
that George spent his exile on St. Domingue (now called Haiti) although
no documentation has been found to confirm this. A note appended
to his dossier tells us that he was subsequently pardoned – the
date is not recorded – but it must have been before 1755 when
he is known to have been back in Basse Terre.
In many respects the story of Saint George is that of the son of
Nanon given that the father had a daughter with his legal wife who,
despite her privileged life, left no record of remarkable achievement
or exhibited any of the extraordinary talents of Saint George.
An Elite Education in Paris--The Call to Adventure and Nobility
In 1759, when Saint-George was 14, his father returned to Paris
taking his legal wife and daughter as well as Nanon and the young
Saint-George. The domestic situation of George Bologne seems to have
been unconventional to say the least. Whatever the relationship he
enjoyed with his legal wife it seems odd given the rigid social etiquette
of the class to which he belonged that George should have brought
his illegitimate son and his slave mistress to France at the same
time as his wife.
It is likely that George’s behavior was grounded in affection
for Joseph and Nanon. Not only did George allow Joseph to use the
family name–evidence that he acknowledged his paternity, which
was unusual for slave owners--but he also paid large sums of money
for the boy’s education. It is likely that Joseph gave signs
of his precocious gifts at a very early age. Knowing that in the
colonies this remarkable boy would be condemned to a life of humiliation
and casual brutality, his father likely opted to bring him to France
where he would have greater opportunities and suffer less overt prejudice.
It is not necessarily overly idealistic to attribute such motives
to the father since the evidence of young Joseph’s special
treatment is undeniable. George’s decision to give his son
the best possible education was vindicated early on by his spectacular
Doubtless George hired private tutors to prepare Saint George for
entry to a regular educational institution and to ensure that he
would be able to mix with ease with members of the aristocratic class
to which he belonged. His father, perhaps intending him for a military
career, boarded Saint George with the Master of Arms La Boëssière.
In fact the earliest biographical sketch of Saint-Georges, the "Notice
Historique" by his friend La Boëssière, asserts
that Joseph’s facility for learning astounded those who were
engaged to teach him. La Boëssière’s son, also
a famous swordsman, trained from boyhood alongside Saint-Georges.
In his foreword to the second edition of his father’s La Traité de
l’Art des Armes, La Boëssière writes:
"From the age of eight when my father first put the foil in
my hand I had the inestimable advantage of being trained under his
instruction and brought up with M. de Saint-Georges, who was my friend
and companion in arms right up to his death…"
The morning was devoted to Saint George’s education and the
rest of the day was spent in the exercise hall. The young Chevalier
developed superlative speed and by his late teens he had made such
rapid progress that he could beat the strongest fencers in Europe.
Reportedly he was relatively tall, slim and had an astonishing agility.
His stance was superb and with his hand held high he could always
exploit the faults of his opponent. His left foot was firm and never
wandered, and his right leg stayed absolutely straight. This combination
gave him the poise he needed to recover his position and go back
on to the attack with the speed of lightning.
Saint-George also excelled in riding and the Chevalier Dugast, principal
of the Tuileries Riding School, one of the royal academies controlled
by the Grand Ecuyer de France, thought him one of his best pupils.
According to 19th century biographer Fetis, "he [Saint George]
was an excellent horseman who could ride the most difficult of horses
bareback and render them docile".
Around the time he entered La Boëssière’s establishment,
Saint-Georges took the first step in his military career by becoming
a member of the Gendarmes de la Garde du Roi (King’s Guard).
Saint George also went on to join the Musketeers—the King’s
Horse Guards. The fact that Saint George was allowed into the Guards
proves that despite his color he was recognized as a member of the
nobility and was accorded his rights as the son of a Gentleman of
the King’s Chamber. The young outsider from the colonies was
quickly becoming an insider in French society’s most elite
A Fencing Champion and "God of Arms"
Henry Angelo, who ran a famous fencing academy in London, wrote
an account Saint-George’s athletic prowess:
"Never did any man combine such suppleness with so much strength.
He excelled in every physical exercise he took up, and was also an
accomplished swimmer and skater…He could often be seen swimming
across the Seine with only one arm, and in skating his skill exceeded
everyone else’s. As to the pistol, he rarely missed the target.
In running he was reputed to be one of the leading exponents in the
whole of Europe".
Inevitably the exotic prodigy Saint-George soon dazzled Parisian
society and his company was fought over. When he was confronted,
as he was from time to time, by jealous hostility, his charm and
impeccable manners soon disarmed his opponent. Few would dare challenge
him to a duel and on one occasion, when he was slapped by a well-known
violinist, he declined to fight on the grounds that he had far too
much respect for his opponent.
However in 1765 a master of arms from Rouen and former officer,
named Picard, challenged Saint George to a duel with a racial insult
calling him "La Boessiere’s mulatto". Saint George
declined, but his father insisted and promised him an English style
cabriolet if he won. Saint George went to Rouen and easily defeated
Picard. Picard was forced to acknowledge Saint George’s superior
A year later, in 1766, Saint George distinguished himself again
against celebrated Italian fencer Giuseppe Gianfaldoni in a match
that took place before an exceptionally grand audience of Europe’s
leading aristocracy and swordsmen. It ended with four hits to the
credit of the master Gianfaldoni and two for the young St. George.
However Gianfaldoni heaped praise on Saint George granting him incredible
speed and strength and describing his parries as "almost impenetrable".
Gianfaldoni predicted that Saint George would become the best swordsman
Gianfaldoni was right, Saint George quickly became known as one
of the leading authorities on the art and science of arms, taught
as a master and was admitted to the Royal Academy as a professor.
The Academy’s official certificates were issued bearing Saint
George’s effigy. He became known as the "god of arms".
To have achieved such prominence at an early age must have involved
an enormous amount of effort even given his great natural ability,
but what is even more remarkable is that his time cannot have been
devoted entirely to these activities since all the time he was developing
his formidable technique as a swordsman he must have been making
astounding progress in his musical studies.
Le Mozart Noir
("The Black Mozart")
Early accounts of Saint-George’s life claim that he first
studied violin with Platon, his father’s estate manager, and
later, in France, took lessons with Leclair and possibly Lolli. He
certainly enjoyed a close professional relationship with Gossec and
indeed the older composer might have given him composition lessons
at some stage. A musical education of sorts was considered de rigueur
for members of the nobility and some individuals are known to have
played to a professional standard. Saint-Georges’s father was
a notable patron of musicians and received dedications from a number
of composers including the Italian violinist Antonio Lolli and Carl
Stamitz. In 1770 the latter dedicated his Six Orchestral Quartets
Op.1 "To Monsieur Bologne de St-George, who brings to his good
fortune as a lover of the arts the pleasure of also understanding
them, and who has given us artists an invaluable gift in the person
of his son".
Joseph also received a number of dedications early in life, notably
the two Violin Concertos, Op.2 by Lolli (1764), and Gossec’s
Six Trios, Op.9:
"To M. de Saint-George, Ecuyer, Gendarme in the King’s
In view of the reputation you have acquired through your talents
and the support you have accorded to artists, I allow myself the
liberty of dedicating this work to you, out of homage to an enlightened
music-lover. If you lend it your approval its success is assured.
I am, Sir, with respect, your very humble servant.
F-J Gossec, d’Anvers"
It speaks volumes for Saint-Georges’s reputation that two
such distinguished composers as Lolli and Gossec should choose to
dedicate works to him well before his twentieth birthday.
Saint-George’s musical career was launched in the late 1760s.
In 1769 he joined the Concert des Amateurs as first violin (leader).
This orchestra had just been assembled under the direction of Gossec
thanks to the support of patrons such as Baron d’Ogny and,
perhaps, Saint-George’s father. The twelve weekly performances
of the Amateurs took place from December to March at the town house
of Charles de Rohan-Rohan, Prince of Soubise and Epinoy.
The orchestra of the Amateurs was unusually large for the period
numbering up to 76 players with 40 violins The concerts were open
to subscription and largely featured new music, in particular symphonies,
concertos and symphonies concertante. According to Gossec they provided
the opportunity to hear "the most skillful performers of Paris
in all parts of the orchestra". The most famous instrumentalists
of the Opéra and Court took part as well as celebrated foreign
When Gossec left the Amateurs in 1773 to take over the Concert Spirituel,
Saint-George, (age twenty-eight) succeeded him as conductor of the
orchestra. In the spring of 1773 Saint-George published his first
compositions—Six String Quartets. Later that year, the second
of Saint George’s works the two concertos for violin and orchestra
(Violin Concertos Op.2) was published and Saint George made his public
début as a soloist performing them. According to the Mercure
de France the works "received the most rapturous applause, both
for its excellent execution and for the composition itself".
The Amateurs won its great reputation during Saint-George’s
eight-year directorship and it was this orchestra – and not
the Concert Spirituel – which introduced Haydn’s Symphonies
to Parisian audiences.
Liaisons with Marie-Antoinette and The Paris Opera Disgrace
Soon word of Saint George’s amazing performances reached Versailles,
and in 1774 young Queen Marie Antoinette invited the Chevalier to
come and play music with her. Saint George became Marie Antoinette’s
musical adviser and even her teacher for some time. Right up to the
Revolution Saint George enjoyed a privileged relationship with the
Queen who would regularly travel to Paris to attend his concerts,
even going to watch him skate on the frozen Seine. One of the most
well known portraits of Saint George was made by the Queen’s
personal painter, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Historians found mention
of Saint George in the Queens diary as "my favorite American".
(The French and many other Europeans referred to subjects born in
the "new world" colonies in the Caribbean, North, Central,
and South America and as "Americans".) Given her frenetic
nightlife, one can only speculate on the nature and extent of Marie
Antoinette’s relationship with Saint George.
That same year, in 1774, Saint George’s father, George Bologne
de Saint George died in Guadeloupe. In 1764 the father had taken
out a large loan of 500,000 livres, reportedly to "buy Negroes
and improve his property on the island of Guadeloupe". At some
point after Saint George’s matches with Picard and Gianfaldoni
his father returned to Guadeloupe for good, leaving his son, Nanon,
his legal wife and his daughter in Paris. His death created a major
dispute between his creditors and his sole heirs—his widow
Elizabeth Merican, and her daughter Elizabeth Benedictine now married.
Nanon and Saint George, who had survived on an annuity of 7000-8000
Francs each from Bologne, now had to survive on what Saint George
could earn because there was no official recourse for them and it
is unclear as to what would have been left after the creditors even
if there had been recourse.
In 1775, two years after the publication of Op.2, the publisher
Bailleux acquired a six-year copyright on Saint-Georges’s future
concertos. Saint-Georges had become so well established as a composer,
soloist and orchestra director that he was considered for the post
of artistic director of the Royal Academy of Music, the Opéra,
due mainly to the request of Marie Antionette. According to
Baron von Grimm in his Correspondance littéraire, philosophique
et critique (1776), Saint-Georges’s nomination collapsed in
the face of strong opposition from some of the female artists at
the Opéra, including the famous singers Sophie Arnould and
Rosalie Levasseur. Baron Grimm described Saint-Georges to his readers
"a young American known as the Chevalier de St-George, who
combines the most gentle manners with incredible skill in all physical
exercises and very great musical talent…", but the artists
nevertheless at once addressed a petition to the Queen to beg Her
Majesty "that their honor and the delicacy of their conscience
made it impossible for them to be subjected to the orders of a mulatto".
We do not know how Saint-Georges reacted in the face of such obvious
discrimination but it must have been a devastating reminder that
however brilliant his achievements he would always be regarded by
many as a freak, a half-breed, or even a "nigger".
Of course Saint George was spectacularly equipped to deflect physical
attacks--his sword alone was a fearsome reminder of the respect due
to him; and those attackers unfortunate enough to not know who he
was, were quickly beat down. According to the sketch "Duel
a l’ecumoire" (Duel with the Skimmer), Saint George was
dinning with the Prince de Conti at the Isle Adam, and went into
the kitchens to complain about a dish that had not found pleasure
among the guest. The butler, who must have been new and ignorant
as to who he was, called him a "nigger" and attacked
him with a knife. With customary agility, Saint George seized a skimmer,
and using this as an unconventional sword boldly parried the butler’s
attack and disarmed him, to the enthusiastic applause of the other
guests who had come running to watch the spectacle.
However, despite his enormous ability to defend against the external,
on the inside there must have been great pain. Despite all of his
success, Saint George has been described as occasionally "vulnerable", "lonely",
In 1777 Saint-George made his début as an opera composer
with Ernestine at the Comédie-Italienne. As is the case with
many composers, the dramatic flair which served him so well in instrumental
music proved largely unsuited to the theatre and although the work
was applauded in private performances at the theatre of Mme de Montesson,
who was secretly married to the Duke of Orleans, it lasted but a
single night at the
Music at the Comédie Italienne. Nonetheless, both the Mercure
de France and Le Journal de Paris found things to praise in the music
and hoped Saint-George would continue to write for the theatre. Saint-George’s
affiliation with the Duke of Orleans went much deeper than music
and the duke became a patron and put him in charge of his hunting
retinue at his seat in Le Raincy.
A Musical Pinnacle: Saint George, Hayden and the "Six Paris
After the disbanding of the Amateurs in January 1781, probably due
to financial problems, Saint-George founded the Concert de la Loge
Olympique, the orchestra for whom Count d’Ogny commissioned
Haydn to compose his brilliant set of six "Paris Symphonies".
Saint-George acted as the go-between and actually traveled to Austria
to meet Hayden the most famous composer in Europe.
Given the ties between Haydn and Mozart, Mozart’s many visits
to Paris, and the fact that Mozart composed pieces similar to Saint
George, it is very likely that Mozart and Saint George met at some
point. Given his nomination as Director of the Paris Opera by the
King and Queen of France, Mozart certainly knew of Saint George.
In any case, Saint-George rehearsed the six symphonies and it was
he who directed their triumphant premieres at the end of 1787, not
In the years immediately preceding the French Revolution Saint-George
was at the zenith of his fame as a composer and performer. He had
still to achieve great success with a theatrical work although La
fille-garçon was reasonably well received. His musical output
was steady, but no doubt his other activities prevented him from
devoting the greater part of his time to composition.
Beyond his ethnicity, Saint George’s musical legacy is that
his violin concerti contain virtuosity that was extreme during his
time. No doubt his fencing and other athletic endeavors had an influence
on the style of his play. However audiences were most impressed by
the feeling and expression that Saint George put into his performances.
He is noted as being able to use one excellent melodic line after
another in a single work. His thematic ideas seemed endless and effortless,
and sometimes he employs so many fine passages in a row that he almost
seems wasteful. One can only wonder what influence the African and
Caribbean rhythms of Saint George’s youth had on his music--and
therefore ironically on what we call "classical music".
Today Saint George is remembered mainly for his quartets and violin
concerti. His musical style was naturally suited to operatic and
theatrical music, and it is believed that some other operatic works
of his have been lost to time.
The "Famous Saint George": Fashion Icon and Playboy
According to Jean de Beauvois:
"As soon as St. George appeared in any circle, a murmur, to
which all had long been accustomed, circulated through the room.
They recognized him; and the expression of an unforgettable joy shone
on his handsome face. The women on seeing him had the appearance
of hiding behind their fans, as if to convey a secret to one another,
while the men, the most distinguished in nobility, mentality, and
intelligence, came forward to shake his hand. In an instant he had
become the lion of the assembly."
Saint George’s was as big a star in England as he was in France.
Visiting London with the Duke of Chartres, Saint George was welcomed
by the Prince of Wales (who would become King George IV) as his special
guest and wished to decorate Saint George with The Order of the
Bath. Saint George had the modesty to refuse.
Mixing his own style with English fashion, Saint George created
a craze. He adopted the English hat and shoes, and discarded the
French embroidered jacket and culotte for the English pantaloon and
frock coat. This new style became the prevailing mode. English Lords
copied his dress. Indeed it has been said that St. George was the
forerunner of the English Beau Brummell. To France, in turn, Saint
George brought this new look which replaced the French one.
As a superstar athlete, musician and fashionista, Saint George’s
celebrity and "exotic looks" inevitably attracted many
ladies of the French aristocracy. To get an idea of the Chevalier’s
celebrity at its peak, in today’s terms Saint George would
be as popular as Tiger Woods and P. Diddy combined. Therefore, it
is easy to understand why he would have been successful with women.
However depictions of his romantic relationships and sexual prowess
border on stereotype. Bachaumont author of the gossip paper of the
day, Memoires Secrets, refers to Saint George as a "black
Don Juan" and as a "very valorous champion of love".
Other biographers have maintained, "he was the lover of an
incalculable number of marquises, countesses, duchesses, and other
Indeed Saint George was a close friend of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos,
a French official and army general who was also author of the masterpiece Dangerous
Liaisons, upon which the film Dangerous Liaisons was
based. Reportedly they found themselves in competition for the same
women. Furthermore, according to La Boessiere’s son, who was
even closer to Saint George, the Chevalier was "sought after everywhere
in society…" and "…often had
his music to thank for relations in which love was not far away"
and "given his lively temperament, he loved and was loved."
A Baby’s Death
However, if Saint George was a playboy, can his behavior be explained
in the context of his celebrity and the decadent times of pre-revolutionary
France, or was it because that, although he may have wanted a wife
above all else, marriage was forbidden him by both written and unwritten
laws? Saint George’s love affairs were likely condemned at
outset because as Swiss historian Smidak put it:
"Because of his color, any notion of lasting union was forbidden
for Saint George, partly because marriage between white and colored
people was formally prohibited in France from 1778, and partly because
none of the noble families with whom he mixed would have wanted to
introduce a mulatto descendant into their family tree."
Certainly in the colonies any sexual relationship between a black
man or a "mulatto" and a white woman was punishable by
The artificial complexities that dogged Saint George’s romantic
life and the inability to have a normal relationship would have the
gravest of consequences. In at least one account, Saint George is
reported to have fathered a baby—a son—with the wife
of a French Aristocrat. Suspecting that the baby was not his, the
Aristocrat had the servants ignore the baby and let it die from neglect
Assassination Attempts and Rumors of Saint George the Secret Agent
Saint George’s fame came at a price. Whether it was jealousy,
rumors that he was a secret agent, or just plain racism, there were
at least two documented assassination attempts on the Chevalier’s
life—one by undercover police in Paris in April of 1779 (at
the height of Saint George’s popularity) and one in London
in 1790 (as he was becoming more involved in politics).
According to Smidak:
"The few known details are again due to the tireless pen of
Bachaumont. On May 1, 1779 he reports in his Memoires secrets:
Recently in the night, he [Saint George] was attacked by six men.
He was with a friend of his, and they defended themselves as best
they could against the clubs with which the unknown assailants tried
to overcome them: there was even talk of a pistol shot being heard.
The watch came to the rescue and interrupted the murderous attack,
so that M de St-Georges got away with bruises and superficial wounds.
He is already seen in society again. Several of the assassins have
been arrested. The Duke Orleans wrote to Monsieur le Noir, the head
of police, as soon as he was informed of the incident and urged him
to make the most thorough enquiries so that the culprits receive
However, twenty four hours later the Duke of Orleans was invited "from
on high" not to meddle in the affair. The prisoners, who were
all found to belong to police circles and one was the famous
detective Desbrugnieres, were released and the affair was hushed
up. Why the attackers would be given protection by the Royal court
("from on high") from someone as high up in the kingdom
as the Duke of Orleans is mystifying, but it has perpetuated speculation
to this day that Saint George was a secret agent of the King, or
the Duke of Chartres.
Turning Revolutionary and Answering the Call for Liberty
Saint-George was still active as a swordsman and made several trips
to London to fight in exhibition matches in 1787 where he took on
not only the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, but also a personality
who had become, like Saint George, a legend in his lifetime. This
character was the cross-dressing Chevalier (or Chevaliere) d’Eon
a transvestite, secret agent of Louis XV. These matches were detailed
in the London Newspapers. Historians believe that Saint-George met
with progressive political elements while in England, particularly
those campaigning for the abolition of slavery like the Society
of the Friends of the Blacks.
The last decade of Saint-George’s life was dominated entirely
by the French Revolution.
Having been born of a slave mother, Saint-George was well aware
that every advantage he had enjoyed initially was due solely to the
kindness and goodwill of his father, and then later partly due to
his talent. As a "mulatto" he had greater legal rights
than a slave, but in spite of his name and in spite of his fame,
he would forever be at the mercy of whites to some extent. When the
French Revolution proclaimed the equality of all men on
August 26, 1789, Saint-George embraced its cause and decided to offer
his services to the Revolutionary Army when the chance arose.
Within six months of the outbreak of the French Revolution, the
Loge Olympique was dissolved and Saint-George returned to England
in the company of the young Duke of Orleans, Philippe-Egalité who
had early on urged Saint George to join the abolitionist movement
and the egalitarian aspirations of the French Revolution.
It was at this point that there was a second attempt on Saint George’s
life, this time in London. The Journal General de France of
23 February 1790 reported that: "the Chevalier was peacefully
walking to Greenwich one night where he was going to make music in
a house where he was awaited when he was suddenly attacked by four
men armed with pistols. Nevertheless he managed to drive them off
with the help of his stick."
Saint George returned to Paris in 1790, but finding the state of
affairs unsatisfactory undertook a tour of northern France with the
young actress Louise Fusil and the horn player Lamothe. In June 1791
the Assembly ordered the immediate levy of 91,000 volunteers into
the ranks of the National Guard throughout the whole of France. In
Lille, where Saint George had settled, he was one of the first to
sign up. As a brilliant horseman, god of arms and former member of
the Royal Guard, Saint-George must have been a very welcome recruit.
In September 1792 the Assembly decreed the formation of a corps
of light troops consisting of black and" mulatto" men
and comprising 1,000 soldiers, of whom 800 were foot soldiers and
200 mounted cavalry. They first received the name ‘Légion
franche de cavalerie des Américains et du Midi’ but
later were more commonly referred to as the ‘Légion
St-George’ after their famous colonel. Among those Saint George
appointed as squadron commander was a certain "Dumas"—who
was none other than Alexander Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, a "mulatto" born
in Haiti, and the future father and grandfather of the two authors
called Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers, Count of Monte
The Saint George Legion Defends the North and Spoils Revolutionary
Under Saint George’s leadership, the Legion helped General
Menou turn back the Austrian invasion of Northern France, in Lille. The
Legion also helped General Dumouriez defeat pro-Monarchy forces in
However, in probably his most important contribution to the Revolution,
in April of 1793 Saint George may have helped prevent its early collapse
by undoing the treasonous plot of Dumouriez who had secretly turned
against the Convention. Leaving General Miaczinsky to consolidate
Lille and the North, Dumouriez wanted to descend on Paris, free the
imprisoned Royal family, bring back Louis XVI’s son to the
North and declare him King. According to Dumouriez’s own memoirs,
the Revolution had Saint George to thank for spoiling his plan:
"This wretched officer (General Miaczinsky) did not fully
grasp the importance of his mission and revealed to all and sundry,
including the famous mulatto Saint George, colonel of a regiment
of hussars. Saint George betrayed him and enticed him into Lille
with a very small escort; as soon as he was inside, the gate was
closed on him. He was arrested and taken to Paris where he was beheaded."
Miaczinsky likely could not have grasped how deeply Saint
George had come to embrace the egalitarian and abolitionist sentiments
of the Revolution: to Miaczinsky’s eyes Saint George was an
aristocrat’s aristocrat who had been friends with the Royal
family. What Miaczinsky missed was that Saint George was also the
son of a slave. Saint George had super-successfully answered his
father’s early call to the adventure of nobility; by defending
the Revolution the Chevalier was now answering the call of Nanon
and her people for freedom.
With his treason exposed, the Convention declared Dumouriez a traitor
and outlaw, promising 300,000 livres to anyone taking him alive or
dead. There is no record of any reward or promotion for Saint George’s
heroism and loyalty to the Revolution in outing Dumouriez. In fact
Saint George’s actions may have sealed his doom: ironically,
the disclosure of Dumouriez’s plan to re-establish the Monarchy
resulted in a fanatical witch- hunt ("The Terror") for
those who had been in any way been related to the Aristocracy and
Royal Court. Quickly many of Saint George’s old friends and
patrons—Choderlos de Laclos, Madame de Montesson, and Philippe
of Orleans--were hunted down and arrested, then subsequently imprisoned,
exiled or beheaded.
The Revolution Turns On
Saint-George, like most talented and all brilliant men, had his
detractors and was eventually denounced for un-revolutionary behavior.
He undoubtedly made enemies by exposing Dumouriez’s plot. After
a denunciation to the Minister of War by Commissar Dufrene on May
2, 1793, Saint George was brought before the revolutionary tribunal
in Paris on May 11, 1793 and wrongfully accused of a misappropriation
of funds intended for the troops, and therefore disloyalty to the
nation. Dufrene claimed:
"Saint-George is a man to be watched. Heavily in debt, he
had the idea of raising an army corps; the nation has, I believe,
allocated and paid him 300,000 livres to equip his soldiers, but
in spite of this they remain in desperate need! In my view not even
100,000 livres was used for the requirements of this corps, and the
remainder has served to pay the debts of M. Saint George, who parades
an extravagant life-style and has, it is said, more than 30 horses
in his stables, of which several are worth 3,000 livres each: what
Just five months after having saved the Revolution, in September
1793 Saint George was stripped of his command. Two months later in
November he was imprisoned. After 18 months and a Byzantine appeal
process he was released but not reinstated in his command in spite
of the overwhelming support of his men and junior officers. He was
also ordered not to associate with his former comrades. Actually,
given the paranoia that had grasped the Convention and the Revolution,
Saint George was extraordinarily lucky to escape the guillotine—which
his close friend Philippe-Egalité did not.
Saint George in Haiti
Unemployed, Saint-Georges led a vagabond existence with Lamothe
and returned for a time to St. Domingue (Haiti) where a fierce civil
war was in progress between Revolutionary forces from which Toussaint
would emerge and reactionaries like the mulatto general, Rigaud,
who wished to restore the old order including the reintroduction
Saint-George was bitterly disappointed by what he saw in St-Domingue
(Haiti) and returned to France disillusioned and disorientated. Ironically,
the return to the region of his origin would be Saint George’s
final undoing: the black-on-black/mulatto vs. black warfare that
Saint George witnessed on a two-year stay in Haiti after his release
from prison is widely regarded as breaking his spirit—something
racism in Europe never accomplished.
In 1797 he made an attempt to
rejoin the army in France, signing his petition "George".
After giving a brief summary of his experience in the Revolutionary
Army Saint-George writes:
"I have constantly demonstrated my loyalty to the Revolution.
I have served it since the beginning of the war with a tireless zeal
that is undiminished by the persecutions I have suffered. I have
no other resource but that of being reinstated in my rank".
Smidak rightly draws attention to the name he gives himself – "George":
"What is meant by this reduction? Saint-George no longer exists;
the famous Saint-George, the brilliant violinist, the god-of-arms,
has disappeared – carried off by the revolutionary whirlwind
and destroyed by the fratricidal hurricane of colonial warfare".
Saint George was not reinstated. Saint George soon became aware
that he was suffering from a disease of the bladder (that he may
have contracted in Haiti) and died on June 12, 1799. According to
"At his death, there was no knowledge of any family. His father
had had a legitimate daughter … but I searched for her in
vain. Perhaps she had emigrated, or perhaps she had died. So far
as I know she had never had anything to do with her half-brother.
This man who was once so sought after ended with only Duhamel and
myself for companions".
The tragedy deepened: instead of being celebrated, in 1802 after
the reinstitution of slavery in France by Napoleon, Saint George’s
music was banned, and many of his scores destroyed.
Yet, Saint George lives. Like a Phoenix, two centuries later, the
indomitable Chevalier has risen from the ashes as music lovers and
historians have rediscovered him. In February 2002, the Mayor of
Paris, Bertrand Delanoë renamed a street in the memory of the
Chevalier de Saint-George, restoring his stature to one of a legendary