Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: The Early Years

Article excerpt

Biographies and standard reference books state that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London on August 15, 1875, the son of an African man and an Englishwoman. He studied at the Royal College of Music in London and had tremendous success with his The Song of Hiawatha when in his early twenties. He visited the United States three times and died, at age thirty-seven, in 1912.

The main source for information about the composer is the biography by William Berwick Sayers, published in 1915 and in a revised edition in 1927 (Sayers 1915; 1927). Reprinted in facsimile by the Negro Universities Press and reworked by William Tortolano (1977), it remains the essential single volume account of the composer, whose life is further detailed in his widow's recollections (Coleridge-Taylor 1943) and by their daughter, Avril (Coleridge-Taylor 1979).

Avril Coleridge-Taylor's volume is not useful for information about Coleridge-Taylor's early years, nor is his wife's Memory Sketch, for she did not meet the composer until the 1890s. Sayers was born in 1881, meaning that his account of the composer's childhood did not come from firsthand experience. The present investigation into Coleridge-Taylor's early years reveals that the Sayers biography was selective with its evidence and ignored inconvenient information about the composer's early life.

The search for the truth begins in western Africa. In Sierra Leone, where the Atlantic coast of Africa begins its west-east axis, the Circular Road Cemetery in Freetown contains a sepulchre erected in 1877. John Taylor, "native of Abeokuta," died in 1876 "at the good old age of about 107 years" (Fyfe 1962, 407). The youngest of his three sons was Dr. D.P.H. (Daniel Peter Hughes) Taylor. To the north across Guinea and Senegal, in Banjul, once called Bathurst and still the only urban settlement of consequence in Gambia, there is a gravestone to Dr. D.P.H. Taylor, "medical practitioner of this colony who died at Bathurst 25th Augst. 1904 aged 57 years" (Green 1983). Dr. Taylor was the father of the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (Fyfe 1962, 407).

The Taylors were Krio (Creole), Africans with substantial European ways who numbered about sixty thousand and lived in Freetown and the villages of the colony of Sierra Leone. John Taylor came from western Nigeria, where warfare in the 1830s may have caused him to be enslaved, taken to the coast, and loaded on a slave ship bound for the New World. Thousands of Africans, among which may have been Taylor, were recaptured by the British Royal Navy and set down in Freetown, where the antislavery patrol ships had their base (Thomas 1998, 370, 653). Torn from their native lands, they became the Krio.

John Taylor prospered in business in Freetown and was able to pay for his sons to attend the grammar school. His son James, shopkeeper, moneylender, mayor, and newspaper publisher, was a leading Methodist and friend of the Methodist superintendent, who took him on a visit to England in 1869 (Fyfe 1962, 392, 421, 576; Fyfe 1993). This Wesleyan Methodist connection explains why D.P.H. Taylor was sent to Wesley College in Taunton, in the west of England.

The college's register noted in February 1870 that D.P.H. Taylor had been in England for six months and that his guardian was F. (Ferdinand) Fitzgerald, who was the editor of the London African Times (Gibbs 1993). An Irishman with African ambitions and an interest in ambitious Africans, Fitzgerald had earlier been involved with the Krio author Dr. Africanus Horton, who had qualified in medicine after studying at King's College, London, and Edinburgh University (Fyfe 1972). Taylor also went to King's College, London, where he qualified as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in November 1874.

The absence of documentation at King's College is unfortunate, but those who enjoy conspiracy theories may wonder why Sayers states that D.P.H. Taylor went to University College, London. …