Born Christmas 1745 in Guadeloupe, Joseph Bologne wore many hats in his lifetime. He would become best known under his title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, fencer extraordinaire and popular musician.
Saint-Georges was the son of an African slave named Nanon and her owner George Bologne de Saint-Georges. His father took the name ‘de Saint Georges’ from one of the plantations he owned. At seven, the younger Saint-Georges moved to France for his initial education.
At 13, his father had him enrolled in the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation–basically a school for swordsmanship and horsemanship.
As a teenager, Joseph Bologne was known for his amazing speed while fencing. His instructor, Tessier de la Boessiere, noted that he had also developed a reputation of beating other skilled swordsmen readily. One duel, in particular, has Bologne defeating fencing master Alexandre Picard. Accounts note that Picard had been mocking young Saint-Georges throughout Rouen and calling him “Boessiere’s mulatto.”
The duel was turned into a gambling event with those against slavery siding with Bologne and others mainly backing Picard. Once Bologne defeated Picard, his father gifted him with a new horse and carriage.
Becoming Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Following the Seven Years’ War, his father headed back to Guadeloupe to watch over the family’s plantations. Joseph was given 8,000 francs while his mother was also given money to live on. The young Saint-Georges remained in Paris and completed his studies in fencing and horsemanship in 1766.
This made him an officer of the king’s bodyguard. Upon being knighted, he took his father’s name and became Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Young Joseph continued to duel throughout Paris but he would soon become the master of another art: music.