Joseph Antonio Emidy

 1775 – 1835

From slavery to composing music: A celebrated violinist and prominent composer in 19th century Cornwall

From the memories of James Silk Buckingham, and what he was told by Joseph (Josh) Antonio Emidy, Josh was born in Guinea on the west coast of Africa in about 1775. As a young boy he was captured and enslaved and sold to Portuguese traders and taken to Brazil. In all likelihood as a young boy he would have been a personal man servant. The Portuguese slave traders baptised their slaves to save their ‘souls’. In colonised Brazil settlement life focused on the church and black and white people moved freely.

At some point Josh was taken to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. According to William Beckford in his journal Italy, with Reflections of Spain and Portugal, the music was diverse, as Richard McGrady points out in Music and Musicians in Early Nineteenth Century Cornwall – The World of Joseph Emidy – Slave, Violinist and Composer. As with Beckford for a young Emidy

In Lisbon his aptitude for music was noted. Buckingham wrote:

“Here [in Lisbon] he manifested such a love for music, that he was supplied with a violin and a teacher; and in the course of three to four years he became sufficiently proficient to be admitted as one of the second violins in the orchestra of the opera in Lisbon.”

His ‘freedom’ was short lived. He was pressganged by Admiral Sir Edward Pellew who had heard Emidy play and was so impressed that he held him on board ship the “Indefatigable” to play for himself and the sailors. He was kept in slavery for another 7 years, before being abandoned in Falmouth in 1799. There he set himself up as a music teacher.

“The only teacher procurable at Falmouth was an African negro[1], named Emidee, who was general proficient in the art [of playing the flute], an exquisite violinist, a good composer, who led at all the concerts of the county [Cornwall], and who taught equally well the piano, violin, violincello, clarionet and flute”.

This is in the early 1800’s and written by James Silk Buckingham in his autobiography.

“This remarkable man was the most finished musician I ever heard of, though I have had the privilege of listening to most of the stars who have appeared on the London stage during the past fifty years, but not one of them in my estimation has equalled this unknown Negro. He was not only a wonderful manipulator of violin, ‘cello, or viola, but could write equally in either of these clefs, his hands seemed especially adapted for the work, his extremely long, thin fingers were not much larger than a goose quill: where his great talent came from was always a mystery to me, and to all who came in contact with him”.

William Tuck wrote in his Reminiscences of Cornwall.

During his 30 years in Cornwall he was by far the best known composer, violinist and teacher in the region. Some of his musical scripts were taken to London by the anti slave activist James Silk Buckingham, where it was well received until his colour and background was revealed, Buckingham was “advised” to keep Emidy out of the capital.

Sculpture of Joseph Antonio Emidy by local artist, Graham Hall, being installed at the Mission for Seafarers Falmouth

So London’s loss was Cornwall’s gain, and Joseph was kept busy working in Falmouth, Helston, Truro, Bodmin and Lostwithiel. There were regular adverts in the West Briton Newspaper of his concerts and classes. Joseph Antonia Emidy died on the 23rd April 1835 aged 60 years. He is buried in Kenwyn Churchyard near Truro.  

Sadly none of Emidy’s musical scripts remain. It is said that because he was rejected by London, he wanted his scripts destroyed when he died.

His surviving grandchildren, great-grandchildren are in the north of England or have immigrated to America. There have been numerous tributes to Joseph Emidy. In 1998 a ‘Hidden Roots’ Tribute Concert was held at Truro Cathedral to honour him and The Tunde Jegede Ensemble
Bicentenary Concert at Falmouth, Cornwall, England 30 November 1999.              

[1] The use of the word ‘negro’ would be unacceptable today, but was in common use 200 years ago.