African slave turned music star Joseph Emidy’s extraordinary life
The extraordinary story of Joseph Emidy is begging to be turned into a blockbuster film.
The West African travelled across the world as a slave but found freedom and nationwide fame after he was unceremoniously dumped in Cornwall by a British admiral.
The tale of Joseph Antonio Emidy has now become a modern legend in Truro – the city he called home – thanks to a successful play and a commemoration at Truro Cathedral.
Slavery took him from Guinea to Brazil, to Portugal and the Lisbon Opera, before being abandoned in Falmouth and becoming Cornwall’s top violinist and the leader of Truro Philharmonic Society Orchestra.
Emidy was born in West Africa in 1775 and spent his early years in slavery in Brazil after being captured as a child by the Portuguese on the Guinea Coast.
It is believed his slave master taught him how to play the fiddle, which changed his life.
His talents led to him being taken to Portugal, where he was soon playing violin with the Lisbon Opera Orchestra. But his “freedom” was short-lived – when British Admiral Sir Edward Pellew heard Emidy play, he was so impressed he had him kidnapped to play aboard his ship, the Indefatigable, and kept him in slavery for seven years before dumping him in Falmouth.
However, Emidy made the most of his new situation, settling in the port and making a living by teaching, performing and composing. He eventually became the leader of Truro Philharmonic Society Orchestra after marrying a Falmouth girl, Jenefer Hutchins, in 1802 and starting a family.
During his 30 years in Cornwall he was by far the best known composer, violinist and teacher in the region. It is known that some of his music was taken to London by Cornish-born anti-slavery activist James Silk Buckingham and given a hearing by music critics.
However, while many were impressed by the work, Buckingham was advised that Emidy should remain outside the capital’s music circles because of his colour and background.
His advertisement in the West Briton of December 1820 gives some indication of the nature of his work in an area where travel was not easy. It read: “Violin, Tenor, Bass-Viol, Guitar, and Spanish Guitar taught, balls and assemblies attended, harps tuned and piano-fortes buffed, regulated and tuned.”
Music historian Jon Rose said: “Various artefacts, including concert advertisements, press reviews and his gravestone in Truro, attest to the existence of Joseph Emidy – but not a note from his scores has ever been discovered.”
While his music – symphonies and concertos – may have perished, his genes live on.
His grandchildren emigrated to the USA, where their children and children’s children were involved in The Howe’s Great London Circus and Sanger’s English Menagerie of Trained Animals.
Many of his descendants have become musicians, including acclaimed free jazzer and champion of Indian rights, Mixashawn Rozie.
Joseph died in 1835 and is buried in Kenwyn churchyard in Truro.
His obituary in the West Briton read: “His talents as a musician were of the first order and he was enthusiastically devoted to the science.
“His talents may be said to have ranked under the first order while his enthusiastic devotedness to the science has rarely been exceeded.
“As an orchestral composer his sinfonias may be mentioned as evincing not only deep musical research, but also those flights of genius which induce regret that his talents were not called into action in a more genial sphere than that in which he has moved.”
However, the legend of Emidy appears to be immortal. In 2008 Cornish theatre company BishBashBosh Productions toured the excellent play, The Tin Violin, about his life.
Written by celebrated Cornish playwright Alan M Kent, the play starred Mbuguah Goro and was a hit with audiences in the region. It returned in a revised version in 2012, this time starring Oraine Johnson as Emidy and directed by Cornish actor Dean Nolan.
Music expert Gareth Henderson has said of Emidy’s music: “It must be that somewhere Emidy’s music exists. He distributed music around the musical societies, some of it was sent to London to the great impresario Johann Salomon. It must have been distributed.
“People may have some stuff in their attic, there might be some loft of a town hall or assembly hall that has got some music in there and it could be that they have got some music of Emidy’s. It could be in the Westcountry.
“He would have played and written a great deal. There are lots of reports of ‘a new symposia by Mr Emidy’, so where the hell is it?”
Emidy could, says Mr Henderson, have established himself in London, but he had perhaps become too attached to Cornwall to want to uproot himself.
“There is something about the independent spirit of Cornwall that must have absorbed him. Somebody of Emidy’s versatility – he played for the sailors on the ship and he had lived in Brazil – must have been a captivating and fascinating person in whose company to be.”
Mr Henderson added: “He found a security in the Westcountry, a group of friends and a livelihood, and he didn’t want to upset that, so he was never tempted away to the bright lights of London.”
The life and work of the African violinist was permanently commemorated in Truro Cathedral in 2015. Emidy was the subject of a new architectural boss which was carved with a violin and a map of Africa by Peter Boex, of Wendron.
The Joseph Emidy boss, in the ceiling of St Mary’s Aisle, was officially dedicated during evensong at the cathedral. The service featured Truro Cathedral Choir and music performed on the kora, a stringed instrument from West Africa.
Almost 200 years since his death, the legend of the remarkable Joseph Emidy refuses to die.