Enslaved Fiddlers in the British colonial Caribbean (2019)

A satirical print titled “A Grand Jamaica Ball!, or the Creolean Hop a la Muftee” from 1802 is crowded with figures in a large balconied hall (below). White men and women are shown participating in a multitude of interactions—dancing, gossiping, observing from a balcony, drinking, leaning nonchalantly on a pole, groping, being groped. All the dancers are white: young ladies being watched by a haggard looking chaperone, clerics and British redcoats high-stepping, older men in blue coats contorting their body in ways that belie their age. But although white figures are seemingly the subject of the image, black people are depicted throughout the room. Their blackness is represented as opaque, jet black, their faces featureless. The black people in the print are denied individuality, unlike the exaggerated comic white figures depicted. And yet, the presence of black people is essential to the workings of the image, their observation of the event mirroring the viewers’ gaze. The source of the music for the ball is depicted on the balcony: on the right, four white uniformed military officials and a black uniformed percussionist; and far from them, on the extreme left of the balcony, five black violinists, represented more as pattern than people. Below the violinists are huddled thirty-three black barefooted figures, flush against the wall—children perhaps, or the house servants of those in attendance at the ball, almost certainly enslaved. Weaving in among the dancers are liveried enslaved black people serving drinks from carefully balanced trays, witnesses to the high spirits and debauchery of those that they served. This presumably loud scene, although represented silently, makes me wonder about what it meant for African and African-descended violinists to provide the music for people who directly profited from slavery, partaking in British social traditions in a colonized setting defined by violence. How did the violinists relate to the musicians across the balcony from them, the dancers below, and what did the enslaved observers make of the music and dance that they witnessed.

Unknown engraver after "A.J." [Abraham James] A Grand Jamaica Ball! Or the Creolean Hop a la Muftee, 1802. Etching with hand coloring. The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

The anonymizing silhouettes of black people in “A Grand Jamaica Ball” are reconjured almost 200 years later in the work of U.S. artist Kara Walker, who uses black paper silhouettes to create disturbing and complex panoramas and scenes that represent and critique the violence, sexual violence, and eroticism of slavery in the U.S., her sometimes shocking works implicating the viewer in the act of consuming representations of racialized violence. A silhouette from Walker’s 1997 “Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage Through the South […]” features two figures depicted with musical instruments (below). At the bottom of the scene a black man seated on a tree stump, head down, bleeding from his lower lip, tunes or plays a stringed instrument, possibly a banjo. At his back, a miniature woman wearing a headscarf reaches to grab the large clockwork key that protrudes from the man’s back, illustrating that he will be forced to perform regardless of his will, fully implicating coerced music-making in the tortures of slavery. Meanwhile, a couple dances on, oblivious to or ignoring the violent scene behind them. The presence of the clockwork key, of slavery itself, in this scene encapsulates how difficult it is to disentangle how music-making in scenes of coercion was understood and experienced by enslaved musicians, especially given the particular brutality of life in colonial Jamaica. Music has the potential to bring relief, joy, interiority, and escape, as well as being a reminder of precarity, of lost homes, and of sorrow. I cannot re-fix those feelings to music played and heard two centuries ago, but teasing out these complex entanglements is worth pursuing if it brings into relief those people who were forced into featureless silhouette by the colonial archive and imagination. In this paper I attempt to fill out the possible lives of the fiddlers represented in “A Grand Jamaica Ball,” and how their musical labor straddled different strata of the racially segregated social spaces of the British colonial Caribbean.[1]


From Lima to Boston, throughout the centuries of the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in the Americas, certain people were trained as musicians in a way that the people who enslaved them understood a musician to be. Usually these were men, and they were often taught the violin. The time-consuming investment in their training and financially costly provision of their instruments was redeemed in the musical service they provided for the people that claimed to own them. In parts of the Americas colonized by Catholic European powers this musical training was often provided by religious orders such as the Jesuits as part of conversion tactics, but in Protestant colonies little is known about how enslaved musicians were trained on the violin. Some African-born musicians may already have been familiar with a violin-like instrument. Bowed chordophones can be found in musical cultures throughout the world, from the Middle Eastern rebab to the Chinese ehru. Bowed instruments were also widespread in many of the West African regions from which captives were taken across the Atlantic to be enslaved in America.[2It certainly seems likely that at least some of the enslaved men chosen to be given and trained on violins may have already been familiar with bowing techniques and principles. But the mostly one-stringed instruments of West Africa, although also bowed, were very different in technique and sound to the European violin with its four strings, horse-hair bow, and narrow fingerboard. Musicologist Stephen Banfield notes that despite the iconic status of the black fiddler in Europe and in the Caribbean, there is almost no record of how they were trained, but that their existence suggests that their skills were valued, and there was likely a very deliberate program of training and investment in these musicians.[3]

Although the dance depicted in “A Grand Jamaica Ball” is satirical, it was based on a real place: the Egyptian Hall at King’s House, in Spanish Town.[4] King’s House was the residence of the Governor of Jamaica, and was therefore one of the most important houses in Jamaica for entertaining its ruling white population. Although roughly rendered, the engraving bears resemblance to the features of Egyptian Hall, where the Governor held balls and dinners, which was said to have “over a door which opens into the lobby, […] a small moveable orchestra, made to hold a band of music on festive occasions,” as well as an “upper […] gallery of communication, which range[s] the whole length of the West side” for this room which was used for “public audiences, entertainments, balls, and the hearings of chancery and ordinary.”[5] It is the upper gallery, rather than the moveable orchestra platform, that the musicians are depicted on in “A Grand Jamaica Ball.” From 1801 to 1805 Sir George Nugent was the Governor of Jamaica, residing at King’s House with his New Jersey-born wife, Maria. It is possible that the 1802 engraving may have represented one of the balls they had hosted early in their tenure, or one of their predecessors’ entertainments.

Maria Nugent’s diary is full of references to dances that she hosted and was invited to attend. As wife of the governor Nugent was expected to host assemblies for the white women of the island, who did not match up to the standards of conversation that she was used to in England. Just a few months after her arrival in Jamaica she lamented that she found a sad want of local matter, or, indeed, any subject for conversation with them [the women attending Lady Nugent’s first assembly]; so, after answering many questions about how I liked the country, &c. and being thoroughly examined by the eyes of them all, I sent for fiddlers, and we had a very merry dance till 11’olock, and before 12 they all took their leave. I mean in future not to attempt anything like a conversazione, but to have Friday dances.[6]


For Nugent, sending for fiddlers was a convenient way to end the conversation politely and move into a more relaxed form of socialization. The off-hand way she mentions sending for fiddlers suggests that they were nearby, and ready to play. It seems likely that these fiddlers would have been the same uniformed men depicted in “A Grand Jamaica Ball.” Although Maria Nugent and her family brought some white domestic servants with them from England, when she arrived with her husband at King’s House in 1801 they found it already staffed by enslaved domestic servants who had also served the previous governor.[7] Given the high status of King’s House, and the limited number of black musicians in Jamaica who were perceived as tolerable by white elite listeners at this time, it is probable that they sought out to purchase, train, or hire, the best black violinists in the area so that they could be available at the shortest notice for impromptu events such as Nugent’s call for them above. However, considering the high value of enslaved people it is unlikely that these musicians would have been sitting around all day waiting to be called, especially considering that in the Caribbean most dances only started after nightfall and continued into the small hours of the morning. This would tally with the observation of white slaveowner Alexander Barclay, who wrote of black creole musicians in Jamaica that “following the example of the white people, the fiddle, which they play pretty well, is now the leading instrument; they dance Scotch reels, and some of the better sort (who have been house servants) country-dances.”[8] Barclay’s claim that the “better sort” preferred country dances over Scotch reels was part of a rhetoric that the more that black people spent time with and emulated the behavior of white people the more “civilized” they became, thus their taste for the more fashionable country dances over the more raucous and “old-fashioned” reels.[9]

Another example of uniformed, ready-to-play, enslaved violinists is found in the anonymously published 1828 novel Marly, or a Planter’s Life in Jamaica, purported to be written by someone who had worked within Jamaica’s slave system.[10] Unlike the elite gathering of Maria Nugent, where she entertained wealthier white women, in most rural areas of Jamaica there were few white women, and so balls and dances were usually multiracial, or at least involved nonwhite women as well as white men. In Marly there is a grand dance on the planation to celebrate the harvest festival “crop over” where 


[…] after partaking of a sumptuous feast, with an over-abundance of punch, till the evening was set in, at which time, Apollo, the house-boy, was dispatched to the negro houses, to tell Sammy, and Ajax, and Cudjoe, and Scipio, to come to the Buckra house, and bring their fiddles with them. These four were the best fiddlers upon the estate, and they proved themselves tolerable musicians. They had been expecting that their services would be required, for they were already dressed for the occasion, and accompanied Apollo to the house.[11]


Although fictional, this scene raises questions about how common fiddlers were in Jamaica. A large plantation such as the one conjured up in Marly would have been reliant on and home to many hundreds of enslaved labourers. The four fiddlers who were sent for were described as “the best fiddlers upon the estate,” suggesting that there were more than those four. One wonders who would have supplied the violins, bows, and strings in these contexts. It is possible that the proprietor would have supplied the instruments, but it is equally possible that the enslaved musicians themselves invested in and owned fiddles. There was a lively Sunday trade amongst enslaved Afro-Jamaicans who would sell surplus produce from the provision grounds where they grew their own produce, or any extra clothing they may have had. But fiddlers had an additional tradable resource: their musical skill. It is well documented that in the U.S. South enslaved fiddlers were often “loaned out” by the people that claimed to own them to make additional income which would often be shared between them, as well as some enslaved musicians being instrument-makers and repairers themselves.[12] This practice is not documented in the British colonial Caribbean, but a similar appetite for skilled fiddlers and instrument repair must have existed, considering the popularity of balls across all classes and races. The breaking of a string could be a calamitous occasion, as described by Maria Nugent when she was being entertained on one of her and her husband’s tours of the island:


10th February 1802. “About 8 began dancing. Broke the fiddle-strings. Poor Blackie was in despair, and so were some of the ladies. I rejoiced secretly, and we got to bed soon after nine.”[13]


Despite Nugent’s secret relief that the broken strings put an end to the dance, her journal entry illustrates that the music that was routine throughout the island was always reliant on the availability of resources such as strings. Violin strings were a sought-after imported commodity and were highlighted in local newspaper advertisements promoting the newest shipments. Strings were made of sheep gut, with the lowest string being a piece of gut with thin metal wire coiled around it, known as “overspun.”[14] The multi-day process of making strings was not suited for the humidity of the Caribbean, and so strings were imported. So when Nugent wrote that “poor Blackie was in despair,” the fiddler may well have been lamenting future possible lost income and gigs, as well as stressed about the possible consequences of the immediate situation. He could be held responsible for spoiling an evening when the family who claimed to own him were hosting the most important woman on Jamaica at the time.

But what would the fiddlers at Lady Nugent’s King’s House have sounded like? White observers’ opinions on the quality and musicality of black creole fiddlers playing variations on European dance forms such as quadrilles, reels, and country dances, varied widely.  Some were impressed by the accuracy of the performances despite the musicians’ lack of formal training, exclaiming that  “the negro fiddlers, accompanied by the lively sound of the tambourin [sic], in lieu of the bass-viol, often play, though not regularly taught, with wonderful accuracy and apparent taste.”[15] This observation played into the idea that enslaved Africans and their descendants were innately musical, a commonly, though not universally, held belief. The abolitionist William Dickson published in 1789 in his Letters on Slavery that “The fondness of the negroes for music, and the proficiency they sometimes make in it, with little or no instruction, is too well known to need support, from particular instances. Thus their taste for melody and harmony, if it does not demonstrate their rationality, ought, at least, to be admitted as an argument in proving their humanity.”[16] This reference to African “musicality” was frequent in both travelogues of European visitors to the Caribbean and in abolitionist writing and could be mobilized both by those who wanted to deny black people’s claim to humanity and equality with Europeans, and those who fought for the recognition of black people as equals.

But even if observers such as Stewart claimed that black fiddlers were “not regularly taught,” there must have been some method of training in order for the musicians to play tunes that were recognizable to the ears of white listeners. There is no evidence that enslaved musicians learned tunes through reading music notation, and most white listeners determined that black musicians instead had an aptitude for learning tunes by ear. In his 1774 History of Jamaica Edward Long remarked that:


[an ear for melody] has also been remarked of the Creole Blacks, who, without being able to read a single note, are known to play twenty or thirty tunes, country-dances, minuets, airs, and even sonatas, on the violin; and catch, with an astonishing readiness, whatever they hear played or sung, especially if it is lively and striking.[17]


The list of different types of music here is quite extensive. Although country dances were an expected repertoire for a violin player on Jamaica, minuets, airs, and sonatas were more associated with white musicians as they were transmitted through written musical notation. To play a sonata by ear demonstrates a keen musical memory, as well as strong grasp of technique. Long’s observation also raises the question, where were black creole musicians hearing these airs and sonatas in order to learn them? Could enslaved domestic servants who were fiddlers have overheard white musicians practicing sonatas, and so learned the melodies? Although there were strict rules delegating how white women could socialize with black and mixed-race men and women, wealthier white people’s homes were often crowded places where enslaved domestic servants also lived. There would not have been much privacy in these buildings, and enslaved people were often non-participant observers in scenes of white sociality, for example the thirty-three black adults and children observing “A Grand Jamaica Ball!” Just as white Europeans overheard and reported back to their peers on the musical practices of the enslaved, so must enslaved black people have discussed, learned, and interpreted the music of white colonists.

Despite Long’s seemingly positive portrayal of enslaved black musicians’ ability to reproduce heard melodies, his note that they find it easier to learn music that is “lively and striking” plays into stereotypical ideas about the music that enslaved Africans and their descendants were said to prefer. Bryan Edwards, who had been a member of the Assembly in Jamaica and a pro-slavery Member of Parliament in Britain also testifies that black musicians could be trained to be “sufficiently expert” to play in a concert where the repertoire would have been sonatas rather than dance tunes: 


As practical musicians, some of them, by great labour and careful instruction, become sufficiently expert to bear an under part in a public concert; but I do not recollect ever to have seen or heard of a negro who could ever truly be called a fine performer on any capital instrument.[18]


However, Edwards’ praise is muted, claiming that black musicians could only “bear an under part” and he cannot go as far as saying that black musicians could “truly be called a fine performer,” even though to get to the standard of being able to perform “sufficiently expert” in a concert requires not only a great deal of labour, but also determination and musicality.  The abolitionist English Baptist missionary James Phillippo also noted that black musicians were proficient players of European music, although he is far more positive in his claims, reporting that:


Hundreds of them [black and mixed-race creoles] are self-taught proficients in the use of the various European instruments of music. Many can play beautifully on the violin, the clarionet [sic], and the flute, without a knowledge of notes; and when they are regularly instructed in the science are by no means inferior in skill and execution to the whites.[19]


There is some ambiguity in what Philippo means by “self-taught;” it is not quite the same as learning by ear, and suggests that African and African-descended musicians may have taught each other technique and tunes. Phillippo and Edwards are essentially reporting on the same thing, that enslaved black musicians were able to reach a level of proficiency playing European repertoire on the violin without recourse to music literacy and traditional teaching of technique. However, Phillippo comes to the conclusion that black musicians are not inferior in sound to white musicians, whereas Edwards denies the possibility of them becoming “fine musicians.” This difference illustrates that listening is by no means objective, but is always racialized. In the Americas, this is what Jennifer Lynn Stoever calls the “listening ear,” which she defines as “listening’s epistemological function as a modality of racial discernment.”[20] But even though Phillippo and Edwards had very different ideas about the humanity and future of black people in the British colonial Caribbean, both demonstrate in their writing that the listening ear  “normalizes the aural tastes and standards of white elite masculinity as the singular way to interpret sonic information.”[21] As I attempt to “re-sound” the world of black enslaved fiddlers, I am doing so through the listening ear of men like Phillippo and Edwards, who were only able to hear through their experiences and European musical epistemologies. Absent from these accounts is any representation of how it would feel to have to perform music on demand, akin to the mechanical clockwork key that cannot be resisted, pictured in Kara Walker’s depiction of an enslaved musician (Figure 2.) 


But my desire to focus on the pain of such performance situations may blind me from seeing the possible pleasures enslaved people may have gotten from playing the fiddle, even in ultimately-coerced situations. Discussing the pleasures and desires of enslaved people surviving violent and dehumanizing conditions is a thorny and controversial area of study. In their attempt to create an “erotic mapping of slavery and resistance” in the life of Harriet Tubman, Treva B. Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson conclude that “the ability to feel through sensory stimulation such as erotic touch is a tool of survival and an affective act of asserting one’s humanity.”[22] Equally, pleasure through musical performance and listening could have been a strategy of survival and an assertion of humanity, even if it was misreported by many white observers as proof that enslaved people’s enjoyment of music meant they were happy with their lot.

The enjoyment of music and the enjoyment (or not) of sex were closely linked in the white colonial imagination. White people are and always were, a significant demographic minority in the Caribbean, and they could only ever hold their supremacy with the aid of metal in the forms of manacles and the bars of prisons and cages, and paper; with restrictive discriminatory laws, and the withholding of literacy. And even then, signs of the fallibility of whiteness were everywhere: light brown babies growing into a class of non-white-and-yet-white colonial subjects. Balls were emblematic of the reality of racial mixing in the Caribbean, as usually it was only if white women were present that dancing would be racially segregated. Simon Gikandi wonders if so many white observers of slavery in the Caribbean decided to comment on black music and performance because they were “insidiously attracted to them because they reflected anxieties about play and the outward display of feelings?”[23] Perhaps. But regardless of how black fiddlers were represented, exploring this particular type of labor during slavery with an openness towards many possibilities of experience takes us closer to bringing representations of enslaved people beyond silhouettes.


[1] There is no material difference between a fiddle and a violin. In Europe and Anglophone America the former is often associated with folk traditions, and the latter with European art music. In this essay I use the terms interchangeably. See also Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje. “The (Mis)Representation of African American Music: The Role of the Fiddle.” Journal of the Society for American Music 10.1 (2016), 1 fn 1.

[2] Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje extensively researched and mapped West African fiddle traditions and argued for a greater inclusion of the fiddle in African American (U.S.) music history in “The (Mis)Representation of African American Music: The Role of the Fiddle.”

[3] Stephen Banfield, “Anglophone Musical Culture in Jamaica,” in Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and his Worlds, edited by Tim Barringer, Stephen Banfield, and Graham C. Boettcher (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Center for British Art, 2007), 143.

[4] Louis P. Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 149; 201-202.

[5] Edward Long. The History of Jamaica, Volume 2: Reflections on its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government (London: T Lowndes, 1774), 7-8.

[6] Entry from 7th August [1801] in Maria Nugent, Lady Nugent’s Journal of her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805, ed. Philip Wright (Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies, 2002), 14.

[7] Nugent, Lady Nugent’s Journal, 11.

[8] Alexander Barclay, A Practical View of the Present State of Slavery in The West Indies (London: Smyth, Elder & Co., 1826), 10.

[9] For more on ideas of taste and race in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries see Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[10] For more on the reliability of Marly, A Planter’s Life in Jamaica as a source see Sara Salih, Representing Mixed Race in Jamaica and England from the Abolition Era to the Present (New York: Routledge, 2011), 55-67, and Karina Williamson’s “Introduction” in Marly, A Planter’s Life in Jamaica ed. Karina Williamson (Oxford: Macmillan Caribbean, 2005), xi-xviii.

[11] Marly, or a Planter’s Life in Jamaica (Glasgow: R. Griffin & Co. 1828), 46-47.

[12] For more on the history of the “loaning out” of enslaved fiddlers in the U.S. see Paul F. Wells “Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Exchange,” Black Music Research Journal 23 (2003), 138-139; Theresa Jenoure, “The Afro-American Fiddler,” Contributions in Black Studies 5 (2008), 108; Mary Caton Lingold, “Fiddling with Freedom: Solomon Northup’s Musical Trade in 12 Years a Slave,” soundstudiesblog.com https://soundstudiesblog.com/2013/12/16/11444/ accessed September 24, 2019; Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr, “Hide/Melt/Ghost: Writing the Early History of African-American Music,” Provost’s Lecture on Diversity, given at University of Pennsylvania, February 22, 2018.

[13] Nugent, Lady Nugent’s Journal, 58.

[14] Gabriel Weinreich, J. Woodhouse, Frank Hubbard, Denzil Wraight, Stephen Bonta, and Richard Partridge. “String.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 2 Jan. 2020. https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.proxy.library.upenn.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000045984.

[15] John Stewart, An Account of Jamaica and its Inhabitants. By a Gentleman, Long Resident in the West Indies (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1808), 178.

[16] William Dickinson, Letters on slavery. To which are added, addresses to the whites, and to the free Negroes of Barbadoes; and accounts of some Negroes eminent for their virtues and abilities (Westport, Connecticut: Negro Universities Press, [1789] 1970), 74.

[17] Edward Long, The History of Jamaica, Vol 2 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, [1774] 2002), 262-263.

[18] Bryan Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, Vol 2., (Philadelphia: John Humphreys, 1806), 292.

[19] James M. Phillippo, Jamaica: Its Past and Present State (London: John Snow, Paternoster Row, 1843), 199.

[20] Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 13.

[21] Stoever, The Sonic Color Line, 13

[22] Treva B. Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson, “Searching for Climax: Black Erotic Lives in Slavery and Freedom,” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 12.2 (2014), 189.

[23] Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 257.

© 2020 by Maria Ryan. All photos by Maria Ryan unless otherwise noted.