The historian championing this figureHi, I'm Jeevan! I studied History at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Manchester. I specialise in South Asian history and the South Asian diaspora. I was born in Leamington Spa but my family are from Panjab in India. The historical figure I will be speaking to you about is George Bridgetower. George was a violinist and composer who was born to a West Indian father and German mother in 1778. He had a lot of fans including the Prince of Wales and Beethoven... I am looking forward to speaking with you about him during Black History Month!
George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was a composer and violinist born in Poland to a West Indian father and German mother. George’s siblings all grew up playing instruments and were very talented.
When George was 10, he moved to London and was performing as a violin soloist at the Drury Lane Theatre. He also toured around Britain and Europe.
The Prince of Wales (who became King George IV) employed George to play in his orchestra and encouraged George’s musical education.
George was such a good musician that even Beethoven, who lived in Vienna, was impressed! Beethoven even had George play the first performance of his violin sonata ‘Kreutzer’ (in A major op.47) alongside him in Vienna. Beethoven dedicated this sonata to George. But after a row broke out between them, the irritable composer eventually took the dedication back.
George came back to England, and continued his musical career by teaching and performing. He was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians on 4 October 1807. George also went to the University of Cambridge to study music at Trinity Hall. He graduated in June 1811. He performed in the Philharmonic Society of London’s first season in 1813, leading the performance of Beethoven’s Quintet.
George got married to his wife Mary Leech Leeke in 1816.
Not very much is known about George’s later life. However, he was remembered as a very talented and powerful musician. He died in 1860 in Peckham, south London, leaving his estate of £1,000 (equivalent to £99,930 in 2021) to his deceased wife’s sister.
What was the time period like?:
In the late eighteenth century, when George came to London, England had a population of around 15,000 Black people. They mostly lived in big port cities like Liverpool, London and Bristol.
Many Black people living in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were often previously enslaved in colonies and brought to England by the people who enslaved them.
There was also a big population of Black people who worked as sailors, tradespeople, businessmen, and, like George, musicians.
Black people living in Britain at this time faced considerable financial difficulties and hostility based on colour during this time.
George’s life was affected by this. For example, when he performed, many people came to watch him because he was seen as different. This was exploited by the people managing him when he was a child, for example, he was made to dress in clothes from Asia and advertisements called him the ‘African Prince’ to make him sound exotic. The newspapers of the time often noted his race, one noted how ‘genius does not solely belong to the tincture of a skin!’
It is also very important to recognise that whilst George was alive, Britain was the leading trader in enslaved people across the Atlantic. At the end of the eighteenth century, there were over a million enslaved people of African descent in the British West Indies. They were heavily exploited and, through their labour, they generated much of the wealth that supported Britain’s booming economy and the Industrial Revolution.
In response to this, Britain became a place of Black political organisation. Central was the campaign for the abolition of enslavement. Whilst it is unclear whether George was involved in the abolition movement, his father was known to be vocal against enslavement. George was living at a time when the Black British community was increasingly challenging the inhumanity of the British Empire and colonisation and calling for equality.
What influence have they had on Modern Day UK?:
In his time, George Bridgetower was a widely known and celebrated violinist but his story became increasingly obscured by time. George was even inaccurately described as “an American sea captain” in an 1840 biography of Beethoven.
Nonetheless, George was noted to have raised “general astonishment” as a young musician, with one 1789 newspaper labelling him the “greatest phenomenon ever heard.” Within a decade of arriving in London, he played over 50 public concerts and was the first violinist in the Prince of Wales’ band. The Kreutzer, the greatest of Beethoven’s violin sonata’s was first played by George and he remains one of the few talented enough to play the complex piece. Even twenty years after his death in 1884, newspapers still mentioned his name, often highlighting his friendship with Beethoven. One even incorrectly reported him as being a “descendent of an Indian prince.
It is important to recognise that George Bridgetower is just one amongst a plethora of story demonstrating the immense influence tha Black people in Britain have had on British music culture.