Men of Distinction – George Bridgetower (1778-1860)
A product of mixed parentage (his father was likely from Barbados, and his mother from Germany), George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was born in Poland in 1778 and became one of the foremost violinists in Europe at the time, studying under esteemed tutelage, playing alongside Beethoven, and performing regularly in the famed concert halls.
In his youth, he gained a favorable reputation performing in England and France, and the British Prince Regent, George IV, took him under his wing; under this assistance, he studied alongside several respected musicians and performed extensively.
While in Austria, he met and played with Ludwig van Beethoven; Beethoven was so taken by his skill that he dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major to Bridgetower. After the piece was performed for the first time, in 1803, Beethoven gratefully gifted his tuning fork to Bridgetower. The friendship was short lived, however. Bridgetower allegedly insulted a woman who happened to be Beethoven’s friend, and as a result, Beethoven severed their relations and re-dedicated his sonata, previously dedicated to Bridgetower, to violinist Rudolph Kreutzer. Kreutzer himself never played the piece, deeming it too difficult, according to contemporary accounts.
Bridgetower later returned to England, married, joined the Royal Society of Musicians, attended Trinity Hall (earning his degree of Bachelor of Music), and continued to perform extensively. A talented musician unfortunately relegated to the dusty footnotes of history (his name would have been undoubtedly well remembered had Beethoven’s sonata continued under the title of Bridgetower Sonata), although his skill as a virtuoso earned him much renown in his era.
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Men of Distinction – John Blanke (active 1501-1511).
While the prevalence of Africans in Europe is well known, many accounts have been relegated to dusty footnotes, poorly documented, or lost entirely to history. John Blanke, musician, was more than likely brought to England as part of Catherine of Aragon’s retinue in 1501, and as such, is among the earliest recorded Africans in England during the time period.
Existing court records document his wages; 8d per day under Henry VII, as well as a document listing 20 shillings during November 1507.
The Westminster Tournament Roll, a 60 foot long manuscript commemorating the royal festivities celebrating the birth of Henry VIII’s son in 1511, depicts an African twice; it has been determined that this man, shown with trumpet in hand and wearing the royal arms, is John Blanke. Unfortunately, little else is known of Mr. Blanke, but his importance to history is tremendous.
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Men of Distinction – Robert Smalls (1839-1915).
Enslaved African who, through courageous effort, became the first captain under service to the United States, distinguished politician, and entrepreneur.
In 1862, he was serving as ship’s pilot on the Confederate military transport vessel CSS Planter, when the ship’s captain and officers disembarked to spend the evening ashore. Smalls donned the captain’s uniform and a hat resembling the one that the captain wore, and with the help of various crew, managed to slip the vessel through Confederate lines and to the Union blockade. As a result, he was hailed a hero in the North, and was awarded $1500 as his share of the ship’s prize.
While serving in the US Army in 1863, the Planter came under fire in a skirmish; Captain Nickerson, in command of the vessel, was inclined to surrender the ship to the enemy. Wary of the potentially dangerous terms of surrender, Smalls instead assumed command of the ship and sailed the vessel out of harm’s way. For his action under fire, he was elevated to captain in place of Nickerson, becoming the first captain under service to the United States.
After the war, he continued to serve his country, having been elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, the South Carolina Senate, the South Carolina Militia (earning the rank of major general), and the US House of Representatives, serving multiple terms. He was also an entrepreneur of note, acquiring considerable holdings.
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Men of Distinction – Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799).
Born in the Caribbean to a French plantation owner and an enslaved African woman, Boulogne was renowned for his swordsmanship and athleticism; he also gained considerable fame as a composer and violinist, often referred to as the ‘Black Mozart’ for his musical prowess. It was noted that he excelled at fencing as a youth, and was praised by his contemporaries for his skill and grace in masterfully defeating his peers. During that time, he studied under several prominent Parisian musicians, gaining notoriety for his compositions and abilities. As an aristocrat, he served in the army during the revolution, commanding a regiment of free black volunteers, and also led the ensemble of the Concert des Amateurs, in which he played violin.
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Men of Distinction – James Peters (1879-1954).
Managed to become the first black man to represent England in an international rugby match in 1906, but due to racial bias, was later withdrawn from national selection. Nicknamed “Darkie Peters”, the highly regarded athlete went on to represent his country several times between 1906 – 1908 (the South African national team refused to play against him), as well as serve out a lengthy and distinguished playing career in rugby league and union as a member of Plymouth Albion and Devon.
Men of Distinction – Walter Tull (1888-1918).
Born to a Barbadian carpenter and an Englishwoman, Tull was a renown professional soccer player (having played for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town), and was the first black commissioned infantry officer in the British Army. Upon the death of his parents, young Tull was sent to an orphanage along with his brother, who interestingly enough, became Great Britain’s first black practicing dentist. Tull’s soccer career flourished, making many first team appearances for his clubs before he enlisted in the infantry at the outbreak of World War I.
Tull distinguished himself on the battlefield, and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in 1917, despite the British Army forbidding persons of color to hold such rank. He fought in 6 major engagements, was noted for gallantry, and was recommended for a Military Cross. Tull was killed in France in 1918, just 8 months before the war’s end.
Men of Distinction – Yasuke (c. 1556 – ?).
Recognized as the first foreign samurai, Yasuke was an African slave that arrived in Japan in 1579 with Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano. As Valignano’s servant, he was present when Valignano visited the capital in 1581; contemporary accounts record the initial meeting with Lord Oda Nobunaga, who met the foreigner with fascination and intrigue, and was the first African that any had seen. “On the 23rd of the 2nd month [March 23, 1581], a black page (黒坊主 “kuro-bōzu”) came from the Christian countries. He looked about 26 or 27 years old; his entire body was black like that of an ox. The man was healthy and good-looking. Moreover, his strength was greater than that of 10 men.” It is said that Nobunaga had the man wipe his skin, thinking that the black may have been paint. Yasuke gained favor and entered the service of Lord Nobunaga, where he was elevated to the rank of samurai, and later fought alongside Nobunaga’s forces against the invading forces of Akechi Mitsuhide. After Nobunaga’s defeat, he was given back to the Jesuits, where he disappeared from record.
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Men of Distinction – Abram Petrovich Gannibal (1696-1781).
Vitals – 1696-1781Afro-Russian general, engineer, and nobleman, the first of such lineage to attain status in the Russian royal court. Kidnapped at the age of seven, he was taken to the court of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople and later ransomed and sent to Russia to the court of Emperor Peter the Great. Having taken a keen interest in young Gannibal, Peter absorbed him into his household, where he developed a close bond with the Emperor’s family.
Educated in Metz, excelled in his studies, and developed fluency in several languages.
Served in the Russian military, eventually obtaining the rank of Major General.
Served a post as governor of Reval (Estonia), and was a noted member of the Russian court.
Great grandfather of celebrated Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, the founder of modern Russian literature.
Father of Ivan Gannibal, accomplished naval officer and General in Chief of the Russian military.
Several prominent current British aristocrats descend from his esteemed lineage.
Men of Distinction – Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (1762 – 1806).
Vitals – Born in Saint-Dominique (Haiti), the son of a white nobleman, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, and an enslaved African, Marie-Cessette Dumas. -Educated in France, and entered the French military.
-Rose the ranks from private to General in Chief by age 31, commanding 53,000.
-Earned renown in numerous wars and battles, earning the nickname ‘The Black Devil’ from his Austrian adversaries for his dogged tenacity on the battlefield.
– Father of Alexandre Dumas, legendary author of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and other notable works.
Elevated to the rank of Division General in the French army, becoming the highest ranking man of African origin in a European military structure. Among his many firsts, was the first black man to reach the rank of brigadier general, divisional general, as well as General-in-chief in the French army.
Men of Distinction – Ahmet Ali Celikten (1883 – 1969)
Credited as history’s first black pilot, having earned his wings for the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Born in Turkey in 1883, he rose to the rank of captain and served in the Ottoman Air Force until the end of the war. He is considered the first black pilot (Arab African origin), having earned his wings in 1914-1915; as such, he narrowly edged the first African American pilot, Eugene Bullard, by a slim margin. Both were among the few blacks who saw air service in the war.