At Carlton House in London, on April 9, 1787, A duel took place between two interesting characters of the era. The duel… Well, look for yourself:
Painting by Robineau, who was present, apparently, at the match. [Royal Collection, copyright owned by Queen Elizabeth II]
The person on the left is the Chevalier de Saint-George, son of a slave from Guadeloupe and her white master. The person on the right is the Chevaliere d’Eon, diplomat and spy who claimed to be a woman and wore only women’s clothing from the age of forty-nine. These two were renowned fencers and had agreed to a swordfight at the behest of the Prince of Wales, wearing the big hat and standing at the center left. This was a major social event, attended by many friends of His Royal Highness.
D’Eon was born male — he later said that this was a fiction concocted by his father who stood to lose his estate if he lacked a son. This was the reason, he said, that he bore both the masculine name of George and the feminine one of Geneviève, one name was genuine, the other, not. At some point in his life, d’Eon began dressing in women’s clothes. He was small, fair, and apparently quite fetching. Although he was one of the lesser nobility, his family was not wealthy and d’Eon, like other courtiers, had to depend on wit and charm to make his fortune.
Portrait by Maher Brown of Saint-George derived from the official fencing academy portrait. This version, 1788. [Wikimedia Commons]
The Chevalier de Saint-George was born Joseph Boulogne to a Guadeloupean slave owner in (probably) 1745. His father fought with a man in 1747, giving him a bloody nose which became infected so that the man died. Boulogne was charged with murder and fled Guadeloupe with his wife, his daughter, his black mistress, and her son, Joseph. A few years later, after receiving a pardon, the Boulogne family returned to Guadeloupe and Joseph began studying music under the tutelage of his father’s estate manager, a gifted violinist who was also the product of master-slave miscegenation. The family, including Joseph’s mother, Nanon, returned to Paris in 1759. Boulogne’s father was in a state of financial embarrassment, as they say, and hoped to find funding to buy more slaves for his sugar plantation. Joseph had been declared a member of the nobility, even though the title was supposed only to go to those born in wedlock. He was given the name Saint-George from his father’s holdings in France. The young chevalier learned fencing and horsemanship — he was very good at both — and continued to study music, particularly the violin. In 1761, he was named a member of the Royal Military Household. At one point, a man called Saint-George “Laböessière’s mulatto” (Laböessière
was the fencing master then teaching Saint-George, among others) and his father insisted that the young man challenge the fellow who insulted him. Saint-George reluctantly did so and thoroughly defeated his opponent. He began to develop a reputation as a great fencer.
D’Eon had charmed enough people to be accepted at court. He served as an assistant in the treasury department and wrote a book on France’s finances. In 1756 he became a member of the Secret du Roi — the King’s Secret — the royal spy network.
Louis XV wanted to invade, or at least pass troops through, the small kingdom of Hanover but George II, Hanoverian king of England, had joined with Prussia in promising to send troops to defend the place and requested Russia to also provide troops. Louis did not want to take on England, Russia, and Prussia all at once. He dispatched two of the King’s Secret — d’Eon and another man — to St. Petersburg to bring Russia onto his side. According to d’Eon — or at least in words attributed to him — he crossed the border in drag, since, he said, only a woman could get past the guards. Once in Russia, he cosied up to the Empress Elizabeth
and revealed himself to her as a man. Elizabeth was delighted at his wonderful imposture and had him live among her retinue for six months or more. Perhaps this is why Russia allied with France and Austria against Prussia and England — or perhaps it was because Elizabeth despised Prussia and she owed a debt to the King’s Secret who had helped install her as empress after a palace coup in 1741. Anyway, for d’Eon, a successful mission. D’Eon returned to France but almost immediately was sent back to Russia, where he was a man in the French embassy and a woman in the Russian court. This duplicity was much admired by his peers in the espionage game. The Seven Years War — England and Prussia against France, Austria, and Russia, soon began. In 1761, d’Eon enlisted as a dragoon and fought in several battles. He was wounded at Ullsdorp. In 1762 he returned to diplomatic service. It was at this time, at the age of thirty-five, that d’Eon was made a chevalier.
The Chevalier Saint-George lost his French violin teacher and patron, Jean-Marie Leclair
, in 1764 when LeClair was murdered outside his house. The young man was distraught of course, but soon reconciled himself to moving into his former master’s position as France’s premier violinist. The murder was never solved but suspicion has gathered round LeClair’s estranged second wife.
Saint-George was now lauded for his virtuoso violin playing and had begun composing. in 1769 he became first violin of
1787 portrait by Robineau who painted duel. [Wikimedia Commons 9French)]
the Concert des Amateurs formed by the master, Francois-Joseph Gossec
. In 1773, Saint-George took over direction of the company and began publishing his compositions. At first, his works were written for string quartet but soon expanded to full symphonic pieces. The Concert des Amateurs was his testing ground for this music. His father died in 1774 and Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier Saint-George, had no share in the estate which all went to his mother and sister. He was on his own but, at this point, the future seemed bright.
In 1762, d’Eon was dispatched to England to investigate terms the English might find acceptable to end the Seven Years War. D’Eon was sent as a man, but he claimed later that, as a woman, he charmed many a secret from the English military establishment. Louis XV was considering an invasion of England and he wanted to know about that country’s defenses. D’Eon pretended to be two people: himself, when dressed as a man, and his sister, Lia, when dressed as a woman. He may have been lover to many noblewomen, including queens — or at least so he said, or was said to have said to his earliest biographer whose work falls on the veracity scale somewhere between unreliable and complete bullshit. Later, more sober biographers have suggested that d’Eon never had a sexual passage with anyone, male or female — but what do they know?
Portrait of d’Eon circa 1775.
Soon after helping negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1763, d’Eon sensed a turning against him by the French court, possibly because he incurred the displeasure of Madame de Pompadour, possibly because he was running up huge debts and begging the foreign ministry for cash. When he was ordered back to France at the end of 1763, d’Eon refused, claiming that the new French ambassador, Guerchy, had tried to poison him. Guerchy sued for libel. Although Guerchy was arraigned for murder, he was not convicted. D’Eon, on the other hand, was found guilty of libel. Now he launched a counter-attack against his enemies. For some time d’Eon had quietly amassed a collection of secret documents about such projects as the possible invasion of England. In 1764 he published some of these documents in a book that became an international scandal and upset both the French and the English governments. But d’Eon did not publish the most important papers, such as the plans to invade England; these he kept back as a threat not to cross him further. In 1766, the French court capitulated and d’Eon was granted an allowance and returned to his work as a spy.
It became well-known that d’Eon and Lia were the same person and some individuals insulted whichever persona was presented before them. D’Eon challenged several of these men to duels and won them all. The sporting classes of London began now to speculate on d’Eon’s true sex and, in the 1770s, great betting pools were set up where one could gamble on the spy’s gender. Thousands of pounds were offered to anyone who could prove that d’Eon was either male or female. D’Eon claimed to be upset about all this activity but didn’t help matters by publishing another book, Les Loisirs du Chevalier d’Eon, in 1774. In this book d’Eon was rather ambiguous about his sex, thus fueling the gambling frenzy. He also wrote letters — stacks of them — to everyone in sight protesting that he was a man and offering to cross swords with those who said otherwise, but his denials of being female always left room for doubt. Some of the gambling concerns — insurance companies as they were called — became anxious and one sued for a settlement of a wager. The case came before the King’s Bench in 1776 where the presiding judge ruled that d’Eon was female. D’Eon himself did not testify since he had returned to France to repair his fortunes there.
English satiric engraving of d’Eon, 1770s.
After Louis XVI came to the throne in 1774, the French began pressing d’Eon to return the documents he had stashed away. D’Eon responded with threats to publish them all and demanded that the king pay him an enormous sum of money. In 1775 Louis sent an agent, Pierre Beaumarchais, author of The Barber of Seville, first performed that year, to negotiate d’Eon’s return of the papers. Louis could not risk the publication of the papers. On the other hand, he had to punish d’Eon in some fashion. Beaumarchais believed, or said he believed, that d’Eon was indeed a woman and begged His Majesty to think of the poor, frail woman, so besieged by fate and cruel enemies: “When it is considered that this creature, so persecuted, is of a sex to which all is forgiven, the heart is moved with sweet compassion.”
In other words, you can forgive d’Eon because she is a woman. Your enemies cannot say that you lack the will to punish them if you are merely forgiving some female foibles. A novel solution to this dilemma was worked out: d’Eon would return the papers, the French government would pay off his debts and restore his pension, but on condition that d’Eon pass as a woman for the rest of his life. Should he ever put on man’s clothing, d’Eon would be imprisoned and possibly executed. The Comte de Vergennes, Louis’ minister, wrote to Beaumarchais:
I require, absolutely, I say, in the name of the King, that the phantom Chevalier d’Eon shall entirely disappear, and that the public mind shall forever be set at rest by a distinct, precise, and unambiguous declaration, publicly made, of the true sex of Charles-Geneviève-Louis-August-André-Timotheé d’Eon de Beaumont before she returns to France — her resumption of female attire settling for ever the public mind with regard to her…
Certainly, if he ever dared reveal French secrets to the English, “consequences will be terrible to d’Eon” wrote Vergennes. So, at the age of forty-nine, d’Eon took on a permanent role as a woman, which now, according to the English courts and the French king, she was. In 1779, d’Eon published an autobiography but the book was ghost-written and rather untrustworthy. Still, it has served as the basis for much of the myth surrounding d’Eon.
The Chevalier Saint-George was at the top of his game when, in 1776, he tried for the position of head of the Royal Opera, now a perogative of Louis XVI. According to Gabriel Banat, three of the female performers wrote to the king that they could never take orders from Saint-George because: “their honor and their delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto.” Perhaps Saint-George became a bit embittered toward the upper classes at this point. He continued composing and directing. By 1778 he had written symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and musical comedies. In 1779, he became a court favorite of Marie Antoinette, a situation that was, perhaps, displeasing to some. In that year he suffered his first assassination attempt. A group of eight or nine men attacked Saint-George in the street, one of them had a gun to his throat when help arrived. The gunman claimed that he was only defending himself against Saint-George’s sword. There were rumors that the entire affair had come about because Saint-George had cuckolded the pistoleer. Later, another man paid child support to that man’s wife.
1847 engraving for a book about dueling that featured an heroic Saint-George.
If the attacks on Saint-George and LeClair sound like something out of Les Liasons Dangereuses, it might be worth mentioning that Choderlos de Laclos was a friend of Saint-George and, in his novel, was describing a milieu he knew well. The attempt to kill Saint-George may have arisen because of his reputation as a great lover. His biographer, Gabriel Banat, suggsts that Saint-George’s fame as a bedtime swordsman was the same kind of racist attribution that is well-known: blacks are bigger, better, and once you go there you don’t go back. At any rate, after this, Saint-George seems to have made an effort to play down his reputation as a lover — a sort of reticence not at all common in this era — though his friends made it quite clear that they thought Saint-George a great lady-killer.
d’Eon portrait made by the English painter, Thomas Stewart, but copying a French portrait by Mosnier made 17??. [Wikimedia Commons]
Marie Antoinette showed favor to d’Eon also and sent her own dressmakers and corsetiers to supply her with proper costume. D’Eon appeared at court and at various salons as a woman, though she generally wore lower heels than was fashionable. When the American Revolution broke out, d’Eon asked that he be released from his promise to the King so that he might travel to America and fight the English. The King responded by threatening to cut off d’Eon’s support and enjoined him from ever wearing a military uniform. That did not stop d’Eon from sometimes dressing in men’s clothes. The first time this happened, d’Eon was arrested and thrown into a dungeon for several weeks. If this was meant to frighten him into obeying the royal will, it failed. From time to time, d’Eon would dress as a man. Each time soldiers were dispatched to forcibly clothe him in women’s clothing. Each time, d’Eon signed an agreement not to do it again. Finally, the game grew tiresome and d’Eon retired to family property at Tonerre, where she lived with her mother.
Even though the Royal Opera was barred to him, the Chevalier Saint-George had advanced his career, performing with Marie Antoinette at Versailles. He joined a French Masonic lodge and, when the Concert des Amateurs closed in 1781, took up leadership of a Masonic-sponsored group, The Olympic Lodge Orchestra. This group performed Saint-George’s clarinet concerto in 1782 and, in 1784, introduced six works by Hayden that Saint-George had commissioned.
The Chevaliere d’Eon, meanwhile had grown restless and, perhaps, apprehensive about the situation in France. He had been caught riding about his estate dressed as a man and warned again about this impropriety. So d’Eon applied for, and received in 1785, permission to go to England. Perhaps another blackmail threat helped pave the way. From this point on, d’Eon was never seen to dress as a man. Nor did she ever return to France.
D’Eon had joined a Masonic lodge on her earlier mission to England and perhaps it was through cross-Channel Masonic links that the Prince of Wales managed to set up the great duel at Carlton House in 1786. Both the Chevalier Saint-George and the Chevaliere d’Eon were highly regarded fencers — Saint-George had once been called the finest swordsman in Europe, but in 1784 he blew out an achilles tendon and lost quickness in his movements. In 1750, Saint-George’s fencing-master, Laböessière, had developed the modern fencing mask
as a means toward non-fatal duels, but no masks were to be worn at the Prince’s fencing exhibition.
Of course, this was a spectacle, a kind of freak show — there were other matches between famous swordsmen that day and this was the novelty act — but both Saint-George and d’Eon were used to being on display and both knew how to deal with royalty. So the tall, slim, forty-year-old Saint-George fought the short, stout, fifty-nine-year-old d’Eon. According to Saint-George’s loyal biographers, although he was prinked once, he won the match. D’Eon’s camp say that their woman hit Saint-George at least six times and was the winner. Of course, this might be gallantry shown the weaker sex. A newspaper of the day reported that d’Eon had hit Saint-George with a coup des temps, that is, in the midst of his preparing a move against the woman. D’Eon exclaimed at the time that Saint-George had allowed the coup out of courtesy, but Saint-George replied that, on the contrary, he had done what he could to avoid it. So, gallantry all round.
The swordfight was a topic of coversation for a few days, then faded. Saint-George returned to France to write an opera about a boy disguised as a girl; d’Eon entertained and dined out where he hobnobbed with the rich and curious. Gary Kates
…James Boswell… talked with d’Eon at a party one evening in 1786. “I was shocked to think of her a kind of monster by metamorphosis. She appeared to me a man in woman’s clothes.” Horace Walpole “found her loud, noisy, and vulgar… The night was hot, she had no muff or gloves, and her hands and arms seem not to have participated of the change of sexes, but are fitter to carrying a chair than a fan.”
What is amazing about the reactions of Boswell and Walpole is that they did not follow their instincts and declare that d’Eon was actually a man dressed as a woman. Rather, despite what they perceived, they identified d’Eon as an Amazon, a thoroughly masculinized woman. They assumed female in what they could not see; they perceived male in what they could see. To them, d’Eon was anatomically female, but socially a man: this is what came across so appalingly to these conservative Englishmen.
If d’Eon’s difference was such that he could hide it with a change of clothes, Saint-George’s was inescapable and written on his skin. His biographers claim that he could not marry because no white Frenchwoman would risk the ignominy of a mixed marriage, but the fact is many of them did. Is it possible that he was gay? Or did he, like d’Eon, choose a celibate path? At any rate, he and d’Eon were odd men out. D’Eon traded on his difference, Saint-George endured his. Slavery was illegal in Paris and its environs, so Saint-George had been free since his arrival there. Now he determined to do something of value to all colored peoples: he joined with the abolitionist movement in England.
In France, Saint-George formed the Society of Friends of Blacks. In England, where he often travelled in order to perform, he became friendly with the major abolitionists of the day. One night, in 1790, accompanied by co-abolitionist the Duc d’Orleans, Saint-George was walking through Greenwich Park to a house where he was to give a performance. A man wielding a gun attacked the pair. When Saint-George proved equal to the task of defending himself, four more gunmen emerged from the bushes. The great fencer used his walking stick and his violin to defend himself and his companion, driving off his assailants. It is thought that these were toughs hired by pro-slavery interests to attack the abolitionists.
Now the French Revolution had begun. Saint-George quickly declared himself a Republican and offered himself for military service. He was brought into the National Guard with the rank of captain. An organization promoting Black/White friendship had been formed by Julien Raimond, a planter and slave-owner of part-African ancestry. Raimond’s group wanted to promote the friendship between free blacks and whites so that, together, they might make slavery work better — which is to say, with lower possibilty of slave revolts. This was completely opposite to Saint-George’s abolitionist Society of Friends of Blacks. But now Saint-George joined Raimond in petitioning the National Assembly to raise a black regiment. In 1792, the Assembly had passed its Edict of Fraternity, which promised to aid any republican uprising that asked for assistance. The edict also allowed for “free legions” of non-nationals who would fight for the French Republic. The Assembly still held much of the racist attitude of the Ancien Regime, which had passed Black Codes that were more and more restrictive as the 18th Century progressed. A free legion of blacks could be excused, somehow, under the Edict of Fraternity, although the Assembly was still dithering over the abolition of slavery. So was formed the French Legion of Americans of the South, also known as the Black Legion, but more generally as the Légion de Saint-George.
Saint-George immediately set out to enlist a fellow student of Leböessière, Alexandre Dumas. Dumas was born a slave to a noble who had a sugar plantation in Saint-Domingue. The nobleman, through a stroke of fortune, came into great wealth from the family holdings and took his son with him back to France. Dumas was given a first rate education and lived the life of a wealthy playboy until his father began cutting back on his allowance. Then, he enlisted in the army. Although, in theory, he could have been commissioned as an officer, he joined up as a private. His father, now the Marquis de la Pailleterie, was horrified that his son might drag the family honor through the lower ranks, insisted that he use a name other than de la Pailleterie. So, the young man enlisted as Alexandre Dumas. Two weeks later, his father died but Dumas never attempted to become a marquis — a fact that probably served him well during the Revolution. He proved an excellent soldier and worked his way up through the ranks. Along with most of the French Army he declared as a republican and joined the National Guard after the storming of the Bastille. Dumas was at the forefront as the Revolutionary National Guard fought the armies of Europe. Already lauded as a military hero. Dumas was the man to lead Saint-George’s legion. In 1793 he was named Lieutenant-Colonel, under Colonel Saint-George, with two hundred cavalry and eight hundred infantry under his command.
Dumas in action against Austrian troops. Color engraving probably from 1800s. Note other members of the Saint-George Legion in the background.
The unit was stationed at Lille where it soon engaged in combat with Austrian forces, defeating them. Officially, the legion was part of the Army of the Centre of General Dumouriez. Dumouriez had politicked against the execution of Louis XVI, had quarreled with the Assembly over supplies for his troops, and otherwise made himself unpopular. When the Assembly sent a delegation to Dumouriez to examine his conduct, he arrested them and then tried to persuade his troops to march on Paris. Saint-George and his legion refused and revealed the attempted coup to the Assembly. Dumouriez fled to Belgium and Saint-George was, briefly, hailed as a hero.
There were complaints about the way Saint-George handled his command, including some from Dumas, who claimed that Saint-George was responsible for the chronic supply shortages. Saint-George was already under suspicion for his ties to the nobility. He dropped the “Chevalier” title and began signing his name as “George” but no one forgot that this man once played music with the despised Marie Antoinette. Ironically, the exposure of Dumouriez’ treachery had helped to create the political fury that soon became the Terror. Saint-George was arrested and incarcerated. He remained in prison for eighteen months, until the fall of Robespierre brought in a new political order and he was pardoned in late 1794, the same year that the French Assembly abolished slavery. Julien Raimond, ironically, was the person sent to Haiti to help that nation adapt to freedom.
Saint-George was not allowed to rejoin the army, so began trying to repair his musical career. But this was a difficult matter without arts-funding by the nobility and Saint-George struggled to make a go of it. In 1799, he suffered a bladder infection that soon proved fatal.
After the Carlton House duel, d’Eon fought a number of other exhibition matches — at least six staged by the Prince of Wales, now Prince-Regent. The French Revolution ended d’Eon’s pension and she spent some months in debtors’ prison. In 1792 d’Eon wrote the French Assembly, offering to raise a company of women, a legion of Amazons, to fight for the Revolution. This offer was declined. D’Eon had a small fencing school that gave various show matches around Britain. In 1796, at one of these duels, d’Eon’s opponent broke the tip of his sword and the fractured blade pierced d’Eon under the armpit. D’Eon was two years recovering from the wound and announced that there would be no more fencing exhibitions. For the last fifteen years of her life, d’Eon lived in the house of a Mary Cole where, in 1810 she died at the age of 81. A crew of doctors now demanded to examine d’Eon’s body. They pronounced d’Eon anatomically male in all respects. Mary Cole was shocked, shocked! do you hear, and many women who had met d’Eon under circumstances not suitable for mixed company, were scandalized.
Dumas continued to rise as an officer and was a general when the Assembly called him to return to Paris in 1794, probably to stand trial for treason. Dumas delayed his departure until after the fall of Robespierre, when the matter was forgotten. Dumas served under Napoleon in Italy and was a member of the ill-fated Egyptian expedition. Returning from Egypt in early 1799, Dumas’ ship foundered and he wound up a prisoner in Taranto, part of the Kingdom of Naples. While in prison he suffered terrible privations, losing the sight of one eye and becoming partly paralyzed. In 1801, Napoleon, now in power, took the Kingdom of Naples and Dumas returned home. There he died of stomach cancer in 1806. His prison diaries helped inspire his son, Alexandre Dumas, in the writing of The Count of Monte Cristo.
The actor LaFont costumed as Saint-George in an 1840 production. [Wikimedia Commons]
The Saint-Charles Légion was slowly broken up after 1793 and turned into the 13th Hussars. In 1802, Napoleon re-introduced slavery in the French colonies — or tried to. He was usuccessful in ending the Haitian Revolt of the newly re-enslaved but settled the matter on terms that Haiti would pay a huge indemnity to France for many years, the repercussions of which still mark that country. Black Codes were re-introduced in France, including a mandatory registration of all people designated as black. Blacks were expelled from the army in 1802. In 1806, inter-racial marriage was made illegal.
Saint-George’s music fell into obscurity, not being performed for two centuries, but Saint-George himself was remembered as a hero and various places in France are named after him. His life, as a fencer and military man, was romanticized and by 1840 there were plays or shows about him, the lead actor wearing blackface. In the 1960s, the American Civil Rights movement brought about a new awareness of black contributions to history and culture and Saint-George was re-discovered. In 1990, Saint-George’s work began to be performed and recorded, though it is feared that a great many compositions have been lost over the years.
The Chevaliere d’Eon was the subject of at least six biographies after his death. The sexologist Havelock Ellis proposed the term “eonism” for what later became known as transvestitism. D’Eon has also been featured in several movies. In the film Beaumarchais
she is played by a beautiful blonde actress, much younger than the character she portrays. D’Eon has attracted the attention of contemporary investigators into the matter of gender and there is a fair amount of new writing about this person, hampered somewhat by the fact that d’Eon told so many different versions of whatever the facts may have been — but, of course, by profession, spies are great dissemblers.
Both d’Eon and Saint-George were outsiders in their society who managed to find a place through their own great talent and skills. Probably they would be outsiders today: trans-gendered people are struggling to find a place in a world where many places make it illegal for them to live their lives. And, even in the most advanced nation on earth, the commander-in-chief may find himself facing charges that he is, after all, an African.
Gabriel Banat,The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow
The recently-published The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is a life of Alexandre Dumas which contains info about Saint-George and his Legion.
AfriClassical.com has a biography as well as a partial discography and a few audio samples. More performances may be found via Google and YouTube. The violin concertos are possibly the most-played pieces.
The CBC documentary,The Black Mozart/Le Mozart Noir is available on DVD and there is an accompanying set of CDs with a great many pieces by Saint-George.
Another on-line biography page.
A biography, The Strange Career of the Chevalier D’Eon de Beaumont by Buchan Telfer, published 1885, is available on-line and is pretty good on d’Eon’s spying and the Beaumarchais mission.
This page is very sober and claims that d’Eon did very little cross-dressing and especially, emphatically Not, during the mission to Russia.
This page takes from a number of sources and sees d’Eon as a cross-dresser, especially on the Russian mission. There are a lot of pictures of d’Eon.
Gary Kates, Monsieur D’Eon Is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade examines some trans-gender issues but its conclusion — that d’Eon was moved by religious notions to become a woman — seems fanciful to me.