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“Dance, ‘Noise,’ and Transgression: Musical Creolization in 19th century British Maritime Culture” Christopher J Smith (christopher. Vernacular Music Center, Texas Tech University School of Music In the 19th century, modernizing trade, communications, and geopolitics expanded and diversified the ranks of those who worked the windjammers and steamers which accelerated the resulting global consciousness. Sailors, pilots, masters, and harbor workers tended toward much greater diversity of ethnicity and experience than more land-bound populations, and the Caribbean, the South Seas, and the Far East were especially highly represented amongst these maritime communities. On deck and docks, inshore racial and social strata were contested, conflicted, blurred, and sometimes subverted: black slave or free pilots and captains commanded white or mixed-race crews; deckhands and officers exchanged songs, tunes, stories, handcrafts, and a wide array of expressive culture; and these more egalitarian maritime perspectives came ashore to influence and mutate social conduct in port and river cities. Music—particularly the music of African Caribbean / creole cultures—was an especially portable, influential, and ubiquitous material for such exchange, and these “creolizing” music and dance behaviors spread widely, both more and less visibly or publically. Hence, the frenzied cultural popularity that followed New York’s blackface troupe the Virginia Minstrels on their first 1843 tour of Britain—during which they played Liverpool, Manchester, and London, paved the way for future tours by other American troupes, and left a host of banjo-strumming imitators in their wake, before disbanding unexpectedly—was not an entirely “new thing under the sun.”

This is a very preliminary investigation, which follows on from a book-length research project that focused upon the creole synthesis in riverine and maritime zones of antebellum North America. From that long-term study emerged the realization that theatrical minstrelsy’s seemingly-instantaneous mass popularity in the young United States was a product not of “novelty”, but rather of the response, by the “mechanics”, apprentices, and working-class young men who were its first audiences, to music and

in their wake. However. homegrown blackface troupes and banjo-strumming soloists sprang up in imitation. dancing. music. and bones. and careers of blackface minstrels decreases in inverse proportion to historical proximity: the earlier the documented players or performers. in the sketches and vernacular paintings of amateur and professional artists. fiddle. The idiom was a cornerstone of music publishing and promotions as well as performance. traveler’s reports. documentation on the lives. as in the US study. In the American project. driven by the iconic instrumentation of banjo. tapdance. those sources included census data. and provided the inspiration for vaudeville. song. most centrally forms they knew from the street. The Minstrels toured the U. and much American slapstick comedy. maps. America’s first successful pop songwriter. in 1844 (?) and were nearly as popular as they had been at home. and. so the evidence for their existence and inspiration must be sought in other places than the theatrical prints. and minstrelsy is widely credited with providing the first introduction of the five-string banjo in English and Irish traditional musics as well. This accounts for the tumultuous responses of working-class audiences to Tom Rice’s and George Dixon’s first solo turns on the stages of the Lower East Side’s Bowery and Chatham Theatres in the 1830s and the immediate and immense popularity of Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels. Dance music. who were the first widely-recognized blackface troupe offering a full evening’s entertainment.K. drew heavily upon minstrelsy styles for compositions and minstrel troupes (Christy’s principle among them) for promotion. Stephen Foster. the sparser the available information—particularly as regards musical practices. and comic improvisation are least documented of all. formed in the winter of 1842-43. This paper seeks to identify parallels and distinctions between the reception of blackface in America and in the UK and Ireland. . The American book focuses upon one such artist: the Long Island New York painter William Sidney Mount. newly legitimized on the theatrical stage. tambourine.

I will address this question through a fundamental premise: that there was an . A few preliminary insights. the “minstrel mask” (Mahar) was a useful tool for crossclass critique: adoption of the caricatured personae of the black minstrel permitted the white apprentice or mechanic a guise from which to mock social classes both below and above him. Third: cities with large transient. Though both cities’ commerce was dominated by British merchant houses. and slaves (18th and 19th) made first Bristol. the colonial trades in indentured servants (17th and 18th centuries). Glasgow. when it came to Britain in the form of the touring troupes of the ‘40s. key zones for cross-cultural contact and expressive performance. as in the west Atlantic. may serve to frame today’s discussion. and the solo idioms that were its earliest manifestations. First: minstrelsy. were originally working-class order to seek in his visual arts confirmation of data regarding cross-cultural musical exchange implicit in census data. Second. Bristol. West Africa to the British Caribbean. and Belfast. familiar in the English theatrical tradition at least since Shakespeare’s day. maritime. Liverpool. and then Liverpool. gleaned from this sparse data. and prose sources. the crews of their vessels employed in the various triangular trades (Britain to West Africa. and working-class populations. maps. were loci of blackface performance. sugar (18th and 19th). Unfortunately. or at least to infer the circumstances of. Dublin. and then back to Britain) were. carried a strong whiff of exotica. In both cases. including London. But how to recover. Anglo-Celtic and Afro-Caribbean musical exchange in Britain and Ireland is even less well documented. the British Caribbean to New England. This is consistent with the American situation: theatrical minstrelsy. the creole forerunners of theatrical minstrelsy? In part. atypically and demonstrably multi-ethnic sites for cultural exchange. This is confirmed by the genre’s swift adoption in Britain—a kind of forerunner of the 1950s skiffle boom.

Liverpool. counting houses. and Dublin—which exemplify three different economic. we may think of the black sailors. and the impact of New World creole influence. and stages of the city of Bristol. regardless of their original ethnicity. I chose to focus upon creole culture and creolizing persons in the streets. of course. as a parallel example. sociological. London was preeminently a site for multi-cultural exchange. whose inhabitants. and servicemen who powerfully influenced Liverpool’s Merseybeat explosion in the late 1950s. were especially significant in cities involved in the Caribbean trades of sugar. I chose to focus upon cities directly touched by the triangular trade but which were otherwise not particularly cosmopolitan or multinational. . not at all far from 1 See Paul Gilroy’s theory of the “black Atlantic” in this context. and slaves: Bristol. This project thus began as a fishing expedition: I wanted to test the hypothesis that the creole synthesis. carried by water. and Liverpool were particularly fertile sites for cultural exchange. tobacco.1 These cycles of immigration or exchange. but the very diversity of its emigré populations’ origins impedes identifying particular patterns of uniquely trans-Atlantic interaction. stewards. shared expressive experiences. Afro-Caribbean expressive culture could be especially influential in these cities even if they contained only a relative minimal “permanent immigrant” population: the Atlantic creole community could exert significant impact upon those cities’ expressive street cultures even only as visitors. So I narrowed my focus to three cities—Bristol. and Dublin’s role (like Cork and Wexford) as a point of departure for persons exiled due to political or economic misfortune. This is confirmed by both the American project and parallel.Atlantic creole culture. Glasgow. later cycles of exchange: land-bound rules simply don’t fully explain what went on in these zones. which I have situated in riverine and maritime environments in the west Atlantic and Caribbean. Liverpool’s explosive growth at the height of the slave trade. and cultural profiles: Bristol’s maritime sugar trade. In the end. might have been at play in other Atlantic locations as well.

and expressive topics from the British Caribbean were well known both on Bristol’s docks and in her dance salons. music. This is thus a story of a city. and Caribbean-born colonials. and of a trans-Atlantic. . Sons of Bristol went out to apprentice in the Islands. it is necessary to understand something not only of the street musics and sociology which were the raw materials for blackface performance. in the late 18th century Bristol still retained the central role in Atlantic commerce it had held ever since the days of John Cabot and the North Atlantic salt cod trade. Losing economic power later in the 19th century to Liverpool. As a result. whose wealth arose from her essential role in the “Middle Passage” which brought slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean and the American southeast coast. and harbor workers whose geographic origin and polyglot linguistic experience made Atlantic culture a zone for creolization. and—most crucially for our present purposes—provided employment for captains. retired to landed estates in the Severn valley. daughters of wealthy planters married into Bristol trading families. mixed-race colonists’ children were educated in Europe. dance. of a culture-crossing individual. for reasons which I hope will become clear. their fortunes made.where we find ourselves today. To tell the English story of the African American actor Ira F Aldridge. Bristol’s merchant houses and shipping lines—some owned by the same trading families—had been the foundation of the British sugar trade. and explain what it reveals about the Atlantic maritime community that was the crucible of the creole synthesis. which took millions out of Jamaica and Barbados. sent thousands of indentured servants from southwest England and Ireland to the Colonies. pilots. a cluster of performance idioms and their semiotic meanings. but also of Bristol’s role in the Atlantic trade. mobile community which was both the source and also the conduit for the worldwide emigration of the creole synthesis. crews. a time period.

in a famous incident during the War of 1812. When. by 1820 the “dandies and dandizettes” of the Grove had become an item for the “flash press. and Bristol: some of the first integrated theatrical events in each of these cities involved the participation of blacks or whites in blackface. shaped the experience of slaves and freemen in the Caribbean but also those of audiences in New York. with other blacks and prostitutes. as a whole. by William Brown. Originally congregating in the “back house” behind 38 Thompson Street. Atlantic maritime culture in this period was mixing. The first component of our discussion.The Sugar Colonies likewise saw the rise of Caribbean syncretic religions. Anglo-American actors or entrepreneurs or musicians. and a also favored destination for whites with a taste for exotica (and probably erotica). responded by threatening to tear the theater apart. they were told that the whites in the crew could sit in the orchestra. London. amalgamating. creole crews. then. Afro-Caribbean sources. These religions. Jonkonnu and Obeah in the English-speaking islands. Within just a few years the Grove’s success led to more ambitious programming (in September 1821 Brown staged Richard III) and new quarters at Mercer & Bleecker. whose beliefs and practices represent a very complex melange of cultural sources. The African Grove had been founded in 1817 as a pleasure garden. and evolving very swiftly. is a theater.” street newspapers aimed at working-class single young white men. This is precisely the period in which the Bowery and Chatham Theaters. observances. but blacks would have to sit in the third tier. and festivals which combined African and European influences: voudou and santeria in the French and Spanish colonies. akin to London’s Vauxhall. most often in socially unregarded and/or uncontrollable ways. which would become the homes of . an American privateer’s integrated crew trooped into a Lower Manhattan theater. a few blocks west of the Lower East Side Catherine Wharf where ferries docked and black fishermen selling fried eels danced on the wharves to attract trade. a black ex-ship’s steward who had been born in Haiti and sailed on liners out of Liverpool. The crew. working-class audiences.

Aldridge attended the African Free School in its second location on Mulberry Street in what is now Chinatown. and coincidentally the year that Parliament abolished the British slave trade. topical airs. dancing. Aldridge later claimed. rather persuasively. Brown was staging his own fulllength King Shotaway. By January 1822. whose “most popular feature. William Brown is reported to have imported transvestism (a “Mr Jackson” danced the characteristic “African Sal”). As a child. and music that related a 1795 rebellion by Black Caribs on the British island of St Vincent. Brown’s productions. Ira F Aldridge was born in New York City in 1807. a New York production of the English street opera Tom and Jerry opened at the Park Theater. and both serious and parodic monologs. the same year that the painter William Sidney Mount was born on the North Shore of Long Island. and in June Brown replaced the East End scene with one set in a slave market. According to period sources. a melodrama with songs. The Grove was visited by the British comic actor Charles Mathews in 1822 (when he claimed to have heard and learned the iconic blackface tune “Possum up a Gum Tree/Stump”) and from which he said he had become “rich in black fun”.” *McAllister 281+ For his own production at the Grove. In March 1823. physical comedy.” *Odell 3:70+ Beyond its crucial role as a very early model for the fluid interaction of black and white theatrical personnel and properties which would inspire minstrelsy’s theatrics.. dancing.. were a fluid gumbo of singing. “a white actor was employed to auction off the cast. the Grove is important for another reason: because it provided some of the first training for the most famous African American actor in the mid-nineteenth century world. in which. opened a few blocks east—which may have led to commercial competition between black and white theater owners.blackface minstrelsy in the second half of the decade. that Mathews had got “Possum” from Aldridge’s . and received his first training in performance there and at the African Grove Theater. Shakespearian and otherwise.proved to be the ‘descent’ into London’s working class East End. just east of the City.

Mungo in The Padlock. by 1825 had become a noted interpreter of both “African” and whiteface roles: archetypal “noble savage” figures such as Oroonoko in A Slave’s Revenge. primacy. itself based in the 1780s career of a notorious Jamaican bandit and freedom fighter. "'White people do not know how to behave at entertainments designed for ladies and gentlemen of colour': A History of New York's African Grove/African Theatre. in Poland. The third element is another theater. That melodrama. like a later generation of New Orleans and Chicago jazzmen. Marvin Edward.performances. is shot through with the complex political implications of the Jamaican supernatural system called Obeah. and the aforementioned Othello. it had inspired both a massively popular “serio-pantomime” which took Haymarket by storm in 1800. 2 McAllister. Manchester. and our present locale. Jack’s tale had proven both remarkably durable and remarkably flexible: because it played into archetypes of “savagery” or “nobility” which had been part of English colonial perceptions ever since Elizabethan drama (The Tempest after all was itself inspired by reports of a shipwreck on the coast of Elizabethan Virginia). and eventually—in the 1850s—took both Europe and Russia by storm. where in 1830 he starred at the Theater Royale in a newly-authored pantomime version of a theatrical property. Richard III. he sailed for England. There are many avenues through which we could tell this story: but for reasons of brevity. . abroad—particularly after he and several other Grove personnel were assaulted by a white mob.2 Aldridge also appears to have recognized. At the age of 17. First mythologized in the Jamaican physician Benjamin Moseley’s 1799 A Treatise on Sugar. and eventually Bristol (2x). He died on tour in 1867 and is buried in Lodz. 1997." Diss. and an epistolary novel. that opportunities for African American performers might be greater. and prejudice less impediment. Northwestern University. Jack Mansong or Three-Finger’d Jack. earning his passage as a ship’s steward. and Shylock. Gambia in The Slave. I am going to focus upon the concatenation of events that brought Ira Aldridge from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to London. as well as subsequent chapbooks. Aldridge is the second character in our story. He played widely in Britain and Ireland. newspaper reports.

but. As with the later embourgeoisement of blackface. 4. in which were brought to a head British sensations of fear and allure regarding Caribbean slavery and the sugar trade which slavery made possible. the syncretic night-visiting festival in which a costumed 3 Richardson. 1797-1807. rather than Liverpool’s more direct involvement in shipping slaves. because its connections to the Caribbean involved investing in and shipping sugar. “Romantic Voodoo: Obeah and British Culture. also provided a way to “act out” rebellion in a fashion that vented working-class tension. Obi’s appeal to middleclass white voyeurism also enacted remarkably precise renditions of Afro-Caribbean folkways on the English theatrical stage: not only the gothic slander with which the Jamaican syncretic religion was portrayed.” Studies in Romanticism 32/1 (Spring 1993).3 Yet. but also the allure of Afro-Anglo festival: Obi contains a scene (I/vi) depicting a Jamaican slave celebration of Junkanoo (“John Canoe”). De Quincey. especially including portrayals of creole characters (Edgeworth even employs the iconic name of “Juba” for one) and of Obi rituals. became a cent er for abolitionism—so much so. “literary exoticism cannot easily be disentangled from political and economic developments. as various scholars have shown. like William Brown’s rewriting of Tom and Jerry to replace the exoticism of London’s East End with that of a fish market on the Lower East Side or a slave market in South Carolina. and Wordsworth all wrote poems or essays on Caribbean topics. between the French Revolution (including the Haitian rebellion of 1799-1804) and the outlawing of the slave trade. all these could be sanitized and semiotically controlled by their scripted portrayal on stage. Bristol. .” and Obi carried similar revolutionary connotations in British colonies as voodoo did in French. a “mask” for cultural critique much like the slightly later blackface theatrics of Jim Crow and Zip Coon. Ironically. Maria Edgeworth. The show marked a brief period. or Three-Finger’d Jack theatricalized savagery and nobility. Alan. regarding the republican furor of revolutionary France and English rural rebellion. pseudo-scientific attempt to justify sugar as a source of physical health and wellbeing. Moseley’s 1799 Treatise in fact was a convoluted. that by 1800 there was literature which explicitly linked sugar to the traffic in human chattel. As Richardson comments.Obi. Coleridge. and regarding the twin cults of Liberté and Obi and the lumpenproletariaten they were taken to symbolize.

were already “creolizing”—that is. in part. This left space for both exotica and “ennoblement. and even to Aldridge’s Shylock or Othello. singing and dancing in return for rewards of money and drink. in the first half of the 19th century. and the white bourgeois who. of a planter class whose language. sometimes bringing with them the daughters of wealthy planters. were rapidly distancing themselves—economically. . and/or geographically—from the street life of cities. was fear—the subconscious but nevertheless very real fear felt by a white colonial minority toward a marginalized. but not the dayto-day human cost of the sugar trade. when the integrated crews of the triangle trade’s Bristolregistered ships hove anchor in the channel and debarked for shore leave. but in contrast to Liverpool the trade’s victims—the indentured or “Barbadoz’d” poor and Irish workers and West African slaves—lay mostly and conveniently over the western Atlantic horizon: Bristol saw the profits from. When those young scions of Bristol houses returned from their Caribbean apprenticeships. even offspring and digestive bacteria. diets. white responses to the African Grove or to blackface theatrics. entertainments. In America.and masked band of dancers travel from house to house. beneath the exoticist voyeurism of Zip Coon. and to European & Caribbean carnivalesque behaviors. already reflective of the multi-ethnic mixing the Atlantic creole culture made possible and even inevitable.” Yet the same period also saw the growth. Bristol depended upon the triangular trade. exploited. Aldridge’s performances in England and eventually Europe 4 The parallels to both English & North European mumming traditions. are obvious. professionally. and vast underclass.4 What lay. the “minstrel mask” permitted carnivalesque transgression: the opportunity for working-class young men to simultaneously mock the urban free blacks with whom they competed for work. when the young Ira Aldridge left the ship on which he’d been steward to try his luck as an actor in England: all these brought with them the seeds of the creole synthesis. as with Three-Finger’d Jack. in the Sugar Islands.

in a city—and a theater— built upon the profits of that trade. Romantic Circles. Between 1825 and his debut at Covent Garden in 1833 (the same year that the Emancipation Act was passed). what W. and for at least the minutes of his performances in regional and provincial theatres. which particularly drew upon his ability to sing.would be received in a very different semiotic environment. he played and sang “Possum Up a Gum Stump. on the decks of Bermuda privateersmen. which dramatized the political and economic paradoxes of the sugar trade. in the first decades of the century.” Playing a Jamaican character in a melodrama based upon (relatively recent) Caribbean historical events. “Obi in New York: Aldridge and the African Grove. T. in the West Indian wind bands recruited for colonial armies. Peter. but contrasting receptions could not entirely erase its creole origins and expressive content—in the Black Atlantic culture which touched actors and audiences at the African Grove. when a new expressive culture. developing a wide repertoire which included both period and contemporary and both serious and comic roles (everything from Mungo in Dibdin’s venerable The Padlock to the title character in Othello). Mississippi. Aldridge reenacted the polyglot. creole environment of Lower Manhattan and the African Grove. dance. and Severn wharves. See Buckley. .5 What this means is that regardless of the theatricality of exoticist voyeurism. and singing a song which was already emblematic of cross-dressing.” the iconic minstrel tune which Mathews appears to have stolen at the African Grove. Lahmon has called “The First Atlantic Popular Culture. Praxis Series. one that partook in part of the English tradition for theatricalized exotica. In 1830. Aldridge toured widely in Ireland and the British Isles. twelve to thirteen years before Dan Emmett’s Virginia 5 Marshall 1844.” Obi. and play the guitar. blackface and whiteface ethnic exchange. and in the working class streets and theatres of the Ohio. as part of a performance of Obi at Bristol’s Theatre Royal.

transgressive harlequinade of masked performance. and skills. or Three-Finger’d Jack mapped onto earlier British theatrical archetypes of the “noble-“ or otherwise savage. Hence. Regardless of the complexity of the sugar—slaves— profits—abolition dynamics which obtained in England’s great shipping cities in the first third of the nineteenth century. and the creole Atlantic culture out of which it arose. and in direct competition to. previously significantly under-reported. . one step closer to reality—and to the creole synthesis. seven years after. which shaped the blackface synthesis and in the reception of that synthesis in England over a decade later. Ira Aldridge embodied the creole synthesis. Charles Mathews’s 1823 blackface characters in A Trip To America. one element of the blackface synthesis which would come to fuller flower in the full evening entertainments by the seminal blackface quartets like the Virginia or Christy minstrels was in fact a Euro-centric recognition of the venerable. given Ira Aldridge’s background. Othello.Minstrels were founded or made their first European tour. these Theatre Royal performances. Certainly the reception to his Mungo. took English experience of Afro-Caribbean performance. Richard III. Yet we must also acknowledge a second factor. experience.