A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Was Ludwig van Beethoven of African ancestry?

May 27, 2005

Dear Cecil:

When I was in college my brother told me that Ludwig van Beethoven was partially black. He said that it was common knowledge when Beethoven was alive that he was of "Moorish" complexion and ancestry. What's the scoop? Was he black, or  — more to the point — was he pure white?

Cecil replies:

Beethoven black? Sure, why not? If we accept the "one-drop rule" that long prevailed in the U.S., namely that any black African ancestry whatsoever makes you black, and if we further buy the argument sometimes heard that everyone on earth is at least 50th cousin to everyone else — that is, has a common ancestor no more than 50 generations back — then everybody's black, or more accurately, as Santana once put it, everybody's everything. If on the other hand we're looking for documented proof that Beethoven's ancestry can be unambiguously traced to somewhere south of the Sahara, that could be tougher to come by, although as is commonly the case in these matters it can't be entirely ruled out.

The idea that Beethoven was black seems to have been first publicized by Joel Augustus Rogers (1883-1965), a Jamaican-born journalist and author. Rogers was fascinated — some would say obsessed — with sex and race and in fact wrote a book called Sex and Race, a three-volume study of racial mixing self-published in the early 40s. His grasp of the subject was impressively broad, and there's no arguing with his main point: that racial mixing has been common throughout history and in modern times has been particularly prevalent in the New World. Rogers was no anthropologist or genealogist, though, and the list of famous personages to whom he attributes black ancestry in his writings, while not completely off the wall, includes quite a few names likely to strike some today as risible. Examples: Cleopatra (Rogers was possibly the first to make the widely ridiculed claim that the Egyptian queen was black); Cheops, the pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid; Nefertiti; numerous other Egyptians of note; Hannibal of Carthage (Rogers had a tendency to think that anyone who lived in Africa was ipso facto black); the Queen of Sheba; many leading lights of Islam, possibly including Muhammad and extending through Ibn Saud, creator of modern Saudi Arabia; Aesop; Moses; the Roman dramatist Terence; the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli; three popes (Saint Victor I, Saint Miltiades, and Saint Gelasius I); the English poet Robert Browning; five U.S. presidents (Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Harding, and one Rogers declines to name); Alexander Hamilton; King Gustav IV of Sweden; Goethe; Haydn; and of course Ludwig van Beethoven.

I'm not saying it's out of the question that black African ancestry could be demonstrated for some of these people, merely that Rogers doesn't do so. In the case of U.S. politicians he mainly repeats charges made by their political opponents — this in a day when claiming that an office seeker had Negro blood was sure to cost him votes. Often Rogers simply asserts someone's black ancestry or finds a quote saying so-and-so was dark-skinned, had "negroid" features, or what have you.

Beethoven is a case in point. Rogers' evidence for the composer's blackness, presented in the third volume of Sex and Race, is twofold: (1) Some of Beethoven's ancestors lived in Belgium; Belgium had long been controlled by Spain; Spain employed some full-blooded Negro troops and in addition had been overrun by the Moors in medieval times; the Moors, according to Rogers, were a hybrid of white and black African stock; ergo, over the span of 1,000 years, black ancestry could conceivably have been transmitted from Africa to Beethoven. (2) Beethoven had a darker complexion than was typical of northern Europeans of his day, and some referred to him as "the black Spaniard."

That's about it. So far as I'm aware, no one in a position to know has taken the idea of Beethoven's being black seriously, but the story survives. Too bad — if we set aside the dubious claims based on guesswork, Rogers' work offers ample support for the once-derided idea that people of black ancestry and in particular those of mixed race could achieve great things. In his books he cites an impressive collection of doers of color, many well-known in the U.S. (Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, George Washington Carver), others not, e.g., Joaquim Machado de Assis (1839-1908), son of a Brazilian mulatto, whom Susan Sontag called "the greatest author ever produced in Latin America." Worth mentioning for his connection to Beethoven is virtuoso violinist George Bridgetower (1778-1860), the son of a black West Indian servant, who gave the premiere performance of what became known as the Kreutzer Sonata. (Apparently it would have been called the Bridgetower Sonata had not the two men quarreled.) Your reaction to such a recitation may be: Big deal. But in Rogers' day just speaking positively about racial mixing was a subversive act.

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