By Tony Mansell
Born: Circa 1775 in Guinea
Lived: Guinea / Brazil / Portugal / Falmouth / Truro
Married: Jenefer Hutchins in 1802
Died: 23rd April 1835 in Truro
The fascinating story of Joseph Antonia Emidy has been mostly gleaned from the autobiography of one of his pupils, the Cornish-born politician and slavery abolitionist, James Silk Buckingham. Others have written about him, mostly using Buckingham’s material, and their work provides a more comprehensive picture of this remarkable man than is possible in this short article.
From these accounts we know that Joseph was born in Guinea, on the west coast of Africa, and, at the age of 12, he was sold to Portuguese slavers. An abhorrent practice viewed through our 21st century eyes but a common occurrence in his time when slaves were valuable merchandise. He was transported to Brazil and sold to a slave master where he remained for a few years. It is suggested that it was here that he learnt to play the fiddle.
While still a young man, we find him in Portugal where his master observed his raw musical talent and arranged for him to receive violin lessons. With instruction, he became a proficient violinist, good enough to gain a position with the Lisbon Opera.
We cannot be sure how long he held this position but it was brought to an abrupt end by the British Navy when, in 1795, he was pressed into service aboard HMS Indefatigable under Sir Edward Pellew.
In his book “Music in the West Country” Stephen Banfield questions Joseph Emidy’s place of birth and whether or not he was kidnapped by a press gang. He does say, however, that he was probably tricked into joining Pellew’s ship.
This latest experience of “captivity” lasted until about 1799 when he was discharged at Falmouth where he chose to remain.
Now, having to earn a living, he began a musical career providing lessons, concerts and other musical events. By the early-1800s he had begun composing and his concerts included much of his wide-ranging work.
Joseph was probably making a reasonable living, good enough to consider marriage, and in 1802, he was wed to local girl, Jenefer Hutchins.
This advertisement, from the Royal Cornwall Gazette on the 7th August 1802, was one of many that appeared during his illustrious career.
James Silk Buckingham considered him to be an exquisite violinist, a good composer and a fine teacher of a variety of instruments. William Tuck(1) of Camborne, considered him to be the most finished musician that he had ever heard.
The reputation of the “black slave musician” spread beyond Cornwall thanks to the efforts of James Silk Buckingham, who had taken some of Joseph’s compositions to London where they were well-received. However, the view in the capital was that his colour would be a barrier and it was felt that the acceptance he had received in Cornwall would not be repeated there.
The Royal Cornwall Gazette in June 1810 provided a glowing report of a concert performance of his music with equal acclamation for its composition and its execution. Such reports were becoming increasingly frequent.
By 1812, Joseph and Jenefer had a growing family and they decided to leave Falmouth and move to Truro where Joseph became the leader of the Truro Philharmonic Society.
There remains many reports of his prowess. His reputation as a teacher, performer and composer continued to spread and he was in great demand across Cornwall. In 1824 the West Briton reported his involvement in forming an orchestra in Helston.
Joseph died on the 23rd April 1835 and his obituary in the West Briton referred to his talents as being of the first order and his sinfonias as evincing not only deep musical research, but also those flights of genius.
Following Joseph’s death, these two notices appeared in the Royal Cornwall Gazette: the first on Saturday the 16th May 1835 and the second on Saturday the 23rd May 1835:
Later in the year, on Friday the 30th October 1835, the Royal Cornwall Gazette included this notice:
Joseph’s compositions were of sufficient quality for James Silk Buckingham to describe them as an “achievement of extraordinary perfection”. Unfortunately, though, none of them exist today and there seems little hope that we will have the pleasure of ever hearing them. There are those, however, who believe that somewhere, in a cupboard or in an attic, his manuscripts still exist and that one day they will find their way to the music stands. We can but hope.
We know that Joseph’s musical talents did not die with him. His son, Thomas Hutchins Emidy, was the Musical Director of Truro Brass Band from the 1840s, until his death in 1871. So well known was he that the band was often termed “Emidy’s Band”.
Information for this brief biography has been drawn from various sources, mainly, as has been stated, from James Silk Buckingham but also from papers and articles by Bernard Deacon, Dr Richard McGrady’s (“An African in Cornwall”), Jon Rose (“The Emidy Violin Concerto”) and Matthew Spriggs of the Department of Prehistory of the Australia National University.
(1) William Tuck, historian.