Joseph Emidy in Kenwyn churchyard

The first week of what feels like house arrest is ending, and we start to adapt. I’ll try to make this a CV-free post, and stick to what we’ve been doing to cope – except to say we were happy to find a local farm shop that would let us pick up fresh fruit, veg, eggs, gin and tonic water. All the essentials.

And now another local shop, even nearer, is about to allow old established customers to collect or have deliveries of locally-sourced fresh produce. A local wine merchant delivered wine the same day as my order on Wednesday. It feels like being in one of those prisons you read about in 19C novels, where inmates have food and drink brought to their cells by their families. Incarceration Gangnam style.

Wild garlic growing profusely in Kenwyn churchyard

Wild garlic growing profusely in Kenwyn churchyard

The last two days’ walks have taken us past Kenwyn church – I posted a picture of its clock tower and lychgate last time. Yesterday we walked through the churchyard. It was a mass of aromatic wild garlic. I’d picked some in a local meadow the other day and made two batches of pesto, which is delicious. Had some with pasta, the rest is going in sauces to enrich them.

There were also swathes of bluebell spears, and the first few pale-violet blooms appearing. Midges danced in the sunbeams like tiny irritating fairies.

Joseph Emidy's headstoneOne of the most interesting of the (mostly Victorian) older gravestones is that of Joseph Emidy (c 1775-1835). He was born in Guinea, and abducted as a child by Portuguese slave traders. He was trafficked to Brazil and later Portugal, where he learnt to play the violin, and became so gifted that he became second violin in the Lisbon Opera orchestra.

Sir Edward Pellew, later Admiral and first Viscount Exmouth, a career naval man whose family came from Cornwall, admired his virtuosity and press-ganged him into providing musical entertainment for his frigate’s crew, playing hornpipes, jigs and reels – hardly the calibre of material he was used to performing. Unfortunately for Emidy, his playing as ship’s ‘fiddler’ was so impressive, Pellew refused to let him ashore, fearing he’d escape to freedom.

Kenwyn churchyard colour

Kenwyn churchyard colour

After four years of this forced, demeaning labour, Emidy was abandoned (around 1797) at Falmouth, when Pellew changed ships. He was able to make a living as a music teacher, and by playing at local parties and concerts.

One of his music pupils, James Silk Buckingham, later a campaigner for the abolition of slavery (and whose autobiography provides some of the online information about Emidy) showed his work to an impresario, who arranged for Emidy to play in London. Despite some initial reluctance from his fellow musicians, who feared playing with a man of colour would lead to failure, Emidy thrived.

He returned to Cornwall, where he lived for the rest of his life, composing and teaching music, and playing in orchestras in Falmouth and Truro. In 1802 he married a (white) woman, Jenefer Hutchins and they went on to have a large family. She came from a respectable tradesman’s family from Penryn; this marriage must have caused something of a stir locally – or maybe not. The Cornish don’t always behave predictably.

Kenwyn valley, just below the church

Kenwyn valley, just below the church

He moved to Truro around 1815, and became one of the most respected and influential musicians of 19C Cornwall. He died here, hence his burial in his (and my) local graveyard. Unfortunately none of Emidy’s compositions survive.

In 2007 there was a ceremony at Kenwyn churchyard to commemorate the bicentary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade, with the focus on Emidy’s headstone. The inscription inaccurately describes him as ‘a native of Portugal’, an erasure that’s typical of stories of involuntary diasporas.

I came across an article about this ceremony that ends with this:

By Emidy’s grave some people recalled other notable African slaves who had found their way to Cornwall like Alexander the Moor, baptized in the ruins of Paul church near Penzance the year after the Spanish raid in 1596… Remarkable in a different way was Evaristo Muchovela (subject of ‘Evaristo’s Epitaph by Patrick Caroll, a BBC Radio 4 play broadcast in November 2002) who died aged 38 in 1868 at Redruth. Sold as a child in Brazil to Thomas Johns, a Cornish miner, c.1837, Evaristo was a slave for 22 years – long after the slave trade was abolished. Unlike Joseph Emidy he chose to stay with his master when Johns returned to Cornwall in about 1859. Johns set Evaristo up as a cabinet maker in Redruth before he died, and both he and Evaristo are buried in the same grave in Wendron churchyard [in W. Cornwall, near Helston]. (British Association for Local History website, spring 2007)

If you’re interested in reading more on these topics, see:

R. Costello, Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent in British Ships (2012)

Richard McGrady, Music and Musicians in Early Nineteenth-Century Cornwall: World of Joseph Emidy – Slave, Violinist and Composer (1991)

(I’ve not read either of these texts, but they’re both cited in the online materials I accessed for this post, and seem reliable.)

 

 

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18 thoughts on “Joseph Emidy in Kenwyn churchyard

  1. THANK YOU Simon. Your posts are such a tonic.

    I have taken to lurking about our local grocery store (a 10 minute walk,thank goodness) and there have been NO EGGS, TP, or paper towel for 3 weeks. My roomates sister scored us an 18 pack of toilet paper at another “Giant Food” grocer by going there at 5:30 in the morning.

    THANKS for the “wild garlic” alert. We have something similar that is a “foraged” food in the woods of West Virginia called: “RAMPS” which has become a bit of a cult item. I wonder if the Scots-Irish brough some wild garlic seedling with them (or maybe people from Cornwall) and they went wild in the Appalachians here (including West Virginia, the mountain range 300 miles inland)

    You two sound like troopers. Thank goodness the GIN is holding out. I will skip our CV news, I think you know what things are like here. Argh.

  2. Loved the tale of Emidy. I wonder if a “forensic musicologist” might be able to investigate and see if any of his compositions survived, at least snippets of them, in passed-down music.

      • I don’t know if they ARE called forensic musicologists, but there are people who search out ancient and lost music. Would be a great topic for a Twitter deep dive thread.

        I am behind in my Twitter thread topics. I talked a bit about Venice yesterday, and promised thread on the novels and TV adaptation of Venetian-born fictional detective AURELIO ZEN. So forensic musicology thread may wait until tomorrow. CHEERS!

  3. Such an interesting story, so full of twists and turns of fortune that it could almost be a novel. Thanks for that.
    We have an interesting character in our graveyard, but only really by association so not as compelling as your story.
    I am enjoying wild garlic in everything at the moment.

      • Simon, have you considered a written treatment of this to propose to the BBC, or whatever producer creates things like the recent Sanditon series. There are a lot of great books out there on screenplays, pitches, etc. You are such a great writer and you have the atmosphere so well soaked up.

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