Mae Mai

Classical Music and its Slave Orchestras

It was just five years ago that Dr. David Hunter revealed his discovery that Handel repeatedly invested in the Royal African Company, a slave trading company in Britain. A year later, Musicologist Hannah Templeton wrote that some of Leopold Mozart’s patrons were likely slavers or heavily invested in plantations in the West Indies. In that piece, Templeton states:

Reading “The Book of Night Women” really brought home the disturbing realities of what Leopold’s patrons invested in. But it has also got me thinking more about this topic as a potential direction for future research. Music in eighteenth-century Britain clearly had close ties with the slave trade. How did this begin to change as the campaign to abolish the slave trade grew towards the end of the century? Did abolitionist events use music? And who were the first abolitionist musicians and composers?

A few unrelated online conversations took me down a very different path which lead me to other questions related to the slave trade and centers on the fact that slaves in both the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific sides were used in orchestras to play classical music.

Dr. Garrett Schuman asked a question about 16th/17th century composers in Asia which prompted me to recall the Baroque music in China I’d discovered while working on programming a Sulh Ensemble Chinese New Year concert. Another question in that twitter thread led me to look at Baroque music in Indonesia where I posted a piece in the Jakarta Post about a collaborative concert between La Baroque Nomad and Franki Raden, an Indonesia composer and ethnomusicologist.

One section in that Jakarta Post piece stuck with me, and I would come back to it and run with it over the next few weeks:

The Dutch were reportedly struck by the musical talent of the Javanese musicians in Batavia and their ability to play Western baroque music, and sought to showcase their talents in a public setting. Even if it meant enslaving the musicians.

“So much so that while many of the Indonesian instrument players were gathered as slaves to play the music, the Dutch brought the baroque-Indonesian orchestra on tour to many places overseas, including as far as China and Japan. It was the first time Dutch baroque music was taken to a wider audience outside of the private setting because at the time, this kind of music was regarded as a private experience, rather than being showcased as a concert,” Franki explained.

Raden ‘s Master’s Thesis and Ph.D. Dissertation include his research on the slave orchestras of Indonesia.

While revisiting some pieces from the past I’d collected in a google doc about criticisms of “Identity Politics” in classical music I came across a few more recently published ones from late 2019 and early 2020. This was just a few days after finding a slew of recent twitter accounts:

They’re basically the most recent, post-BLM iteration of the push back against Identity Politics in CM. This, and other discussions prompted me to start working on making my google doc into a public bibliography of White Supremacy in classical music.

I had already posted the third part of my Diversity, Inclusive Programming, and Music Education piece tying the threads between modern White Supremacist views on listening classical music to become white and the forced assimilation of Native Americans in US Indian Boarding Schools. It was just a matter of putting those threads and the “Identity Politics” and “Wokeness” criticism together into one longer narrative outlining a White Supremacist history of classical music.

So I came back to the Indonesian slave orchestras, and started doing a deeper dive into it. This twitter thread below highlights some of the references I’ve found to slave musicians in orchestras and ensembles used to entertain white European colonialists from the late 1500s to mid 1800s in Indonesia, Brazil, the Phillipines, Haiti, the United States, Japan, South Africa, and I’m sure in many other colonized regions around the world. The thread is embedded below and here’s an unrolled version.

Let’s revisit Templeton’s questions and ideas in light of this. What if we started teaching the history of classical music that hasn’t white-washed out slavery and colonialism? How will we discuss how composers and patrons benefited from the slave trade? Did audiences prefer hearing freemen or slaves to play symphonies (keeping in mind that many of these slave orchestras “toured”)?

How about we also discuss how European colonies or former colonies forced Indigenous Peoples around the world to learn classical music to assimilate and how White Supremacists today still want to model that so as to become better “white people.” Let’s talk about how Imperialism and the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific slave trade enriched European countries to the point that they could afford to create a music ecosystem with large scale and expensive orchestras, operas, and ballet companies which might not have emerged absent those conditions.

So many different questions about the whole history of classical music comes up when you put back in an unsanitized version of it.

Once we can be honest in laying bare that legacy, maybe we can really start to address the root of the problem of how the field has systematically excluded BIPOC (and Women) from the field. Maybe we can start to see why BIPOC communities have created their own music ecosystems that have closer ties to their own cultures. Most importantly, let’s not pretend that classical music hasn’t historically benefited from, and had close ties to Imperialism and Colonialism (and their close siblings Ethnocentrism and White Supremacy) and how that has shaped the culture of that music ecosystem for centuries.


Featured Image Note: Ambionese musician slaves in Dutch trading compound of Dejima in Nagasaki. Japanese silk scroll from late 18th century (depicts earlier Edo period). The slaves are from Ambon, Malaku (Indonesia). An estimated million or more Indonesians and other Southeast Asians were sold and traded by the Dutch. Original at The British Museum: