The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Dec 7, 2013


What a tangled web was the British Empire! In the 18th century, before the Americans obtained their independence, there was much intermingling between the colonials and the locals in London. The Americans would arrive in the great metropolis complete with their slaves and the slaves would sometimes escape and take up with Englishwomen; black children were often adopted as servants by the wealthy, and sometimes these children would grow up to wield much influence in their adult lives. 

The British Empire extended to Asia, of course, and that meant that Americans - both white and black - could find themselves in India as well. One of these transcontinental lives was led by one Julius Soubise, who first comes to notice as a little boy who becomes the favourite of Catherine Hyde, the Duchess of Queensberry.

Soubise was 10 years old, of mixed white and African descent, and had been brought to England from the West Indies, and presented to the Duchess as a slave. She was so taken with him that she gave him a sound education in music and rhetoric, trained him in dance and fencing and equestrianism, and lavished an expense account on him. Soubise grew up to be a dandy, a man about town, a veritable Casanova, women throwing themselves at him; he kept a mistress. 

The Duchess of Queensberry and Soubise, by Austin. (1773).
Soubise got a bit above his station, however, claiming to be an African prince, and the Duchess felt obliged to bring him back to the ground. She did so gently, it appears, for he remained a favourite. He continued to accompany his masters on their trips, endearing himself to all he met. He became proficient at the violin and composed a few merry pieces in the Italian style, and even sang in a comic operatic manner. A multi-talented man, clearly, he also wrote sonnets, sunny and bright ones that brought pleasure to his audience.

He racked up large debts which the Duchess continued to pay off. He maintained a house in town, was a favourite of Garrick, and appeared at theatre vastly perfumed. 'I smell Soubise!' would go the cry amongst the punters when he appeared. He was caricatured in the popular press (one print by Austin showed him squaring off against the Duchess in a public fencing match), and even had portraits sketched by Gainsborough.

In 1777, following an accusation of rape, he either escaped or was exiled to Bengal. As a skilled equestrian, he was able to found a riding school in Old Calcutta. He also taught fencing, and for a time sold books, possibly the first reported African British bookseller.
A gentleman who held a high station in the east, known by the appellation of Memory Middleton, among many other distinguished persons, became his friend and patron. He obtained numerous pupils, and accepted an appointment, with a large salary, to break in horses for the government. Having departed from his former thoughtless habits, his talents and address had placed him in the way of fortune, when lucklessly engaging to subdue a fine Arabian, the terror of every one, mounting the unconquerable beast - for he was the boldest of horsemen - he was thrown, and, pitching on his head, was killed on the spot. [1]
He died in 1798. The Calcutta Gazette ran an advertisement of a sale of a horse to benefit Mrs Soubise. It is assumed this was Julius' widow. There is no record of the marriage; Soubise appears not have left her much money either. There were at least two children: Mary (baptised June 20, 1785, aged 2 years and four months) and Frederick William (baptised August 7, 1785, aged nine months). [2]

  1. Henry Angelo, Reminiscences of Henry Angelo, vol I, pp. 446-452.
  2. Vincent Carretta, ‘Soubise, Julius (c.1754–1798)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008
  3. Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, University of Alberta Press, 1984, pp. 72-3.


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