Sunday, June 14, 2015

Handel and the Royal African Company

by David Hunter

NOTE: Dr. Hunter's work has been featured in recent weeks on BBC (“In Search of the Black Mozart,” 2 June 2015) and in the New Statesman (Antonia Quirke, “In Search of the Black Mozart: A Revealing Look at Handel's Investment in the Slave Trade,” 4 June 2015), in turn generating serious traffic in the electronic media. We asked him to comment.
Logo of the Royal African Company

To summarize, for readers of  Musicology Now, the evidence—and to stimulate research about the furtherance of music through the slave economy as it operated on both sides of the Atlantic during the centuries of captives and masters:

In early 2013 I found a printed list of the investors (adventurers) in the Royal African Company, one of Britain’s two official slave trading companies. The list, drawn up prior to a meeting of all the adventurers in May 1720, named Handel. I followed up by checking the Company’s stock transfer volumes now held in The National Archives, Kew, and there found two pair of buy-and-sell orders in 1720, three of the four transactions signed by Handel.

We already knew that Handel had invested in the South Sea Company, which, notwithstanding the obfuscation of some Handel biographers, was actively involved in the slave trade during the 1710s and 20s. Certainly the story as far as Handel’s finances is concerned is complicated because he seems to have cashed out from the South Sea Company before 1720, then bought back in, then converted his stock to annuities, and cashed out again. He used the capital and interest accumulated during the 1730s to cover the losses of his own opera and oratorio seasons.

Digging deeper into who it was who invested in the Royal African Company during 1720, I learned that Handel’s former patron the Duke of Chandos, for whom he had written Esther (widely regarded as the first English oratorio) in 1718 , was the lead investor. Also, I discovered that fully 32% of the investors and subscribers (or close family members) to the Royal Academy of Music during its existence 1719-28 also invested in the Royal African Company.

From one point of view such investments were unremarkable at the time and among Handel’s fellow members of the wealthy elite, since there was then no significant opposition to either the practice of slavery or to participation in the broader slave-based economy. But that perspective does not help us understand how music benefitted from the profits of slavery.

Just as the artifacts of slavery and its profits persist into the 21st century—shackles, cargo lists, inventories, houses, paintings—so too does its auditory trace. The 18th century will never “be over” as long as we continue to perform and study and hear its music. In this light the unwillingness of writers heretofore to acknowledge—let alone address—slavery’s funding of work creation, performance, and attendance can at best be described as neglectful; at worst it is a continuation of institutionalized racism by exclusionary means. Music history cannot of itself right the wrongs of slavery, but it can and should be open about the roles and actions of the participants who used the profits from owning people and subjugating them for personal or business profit to fund lifestyles in which music played a prominent role.

Various exploratory routes can be taken. For example, what can we learn from archaeological remains? A frog from a violin bow was found in the Jefferson slave quarters. Carl Pachelbel, as son of Johann, taught music for twenty years in Charles Town (Charleston, SC) before his death in 1750, when he owned two slaves (more valuable possessions than his musical instruments). Presumably the fees he received for teaching children and adults came from the plantation owners and merchants of the area. A claviorgan (now minus its organ and thus just a harpsichord) made by John Crang now the collection of the University of Edinburgh was a gift from Beeston Long to his sister Jane, who was the wife of his business partner Roger Drake. Long was a West India merchant (primarily a sugar importer) in London, whose family owned Jamaican plantations. It was his nephew Edward Long who published his unabashedly racist views in The History of Jamaica (1774).

It may seem a long way from lead RAC investor Chandos’s commissioning of Esther in 1718, through an expanded performance in the summer of 1720 at his behest (at the height of investor excitement), to the eventual writing of Messiah in 1741, and its first performance in 1742, but such is the trajectory. Many who first welcomed Handel to British soil were involved in the colonial enterprise, and specifically slavery, through their investments or official appointments.

The main question for both sides of the Atlantic (and not just the Anglophone countries) is how did the profits of the broad slave economy find their way into musical activity? We know a little about the music-making of slaves, though not nearly enough. The inter-relations among native and transported musics, and those of masters (rich or poor) have hardly begun to be considered. Thankfully the musics of West Africa are better understood now than thirty years ago but more could be done to identify regional distinctions, and the alterations to which African music was subject once it arrived on the shores of North and South America and the Caribbean. We know next to nothing about how slavery’s profits were put to use, whether in the colonies or back at home.

Doubtless there will be sufficient folks to take up these research challenges and make us all wiser than we currently are about these matters: it is a question of scholarly responsibility. Historians of art and of architecture have gone some way in Britain at least toward identifying works, collections, and places created through the deployment of slavery’s profits. American universities’ early profiting from slavery has been treated; industry and agriculture have long been analysed. To consider music exempt from the taint of slavery is wrongheaded: we must overcome this legacy of inaction.
More information on Handel’s investment in the slave trading companies will be found in Hunter's forthcoming book The Lives of George Frideric Handel (Boydell, 2015).

David Hunter is Music Librarian in the Fine Arts Library, University of Texas Libraries, and Senior Lecturer at the Butler School of Music, University of Texas at Austin, where he has served since 1988. As a chorister of Chichester Cathedral he sang in the first English performance of the Chichester Pslams in 1965. This year he gave the Stanley Sadie Lecture in London (February) and a paper on “Music and the Slave-Trade Economy to 1784” for the Society for American Music annual meeting in Sacramento, CA (March).

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