Academic journal article Text Matters

The Lost Life of Ira Daniel Aldridge (Part 1)

Academic journal article Text Matters

The Lost Life of Ira Daniel Aldridge (Part 1)

Article excerpt

There are several mysteries surrounding Ira Aldridge's eldest son Ira Daniel. Who was his mother? Why did his father send him away to Australia at age nineteen? What did he do there? Where and when did he die? Are any of his descendants alive in Australia today? Given the lacunae in British and Australian birth, marriage and death records, we may never be able to answer some of these questions, but other documents that have survived provide us with enough hard facts to reconstruct the trajectory of a portion of his life, particularly moments in his childhood and young adulthood that appear to have determined the direction he ultimately decided to go. It is not an altogether happy story. In a sense Ira Daniel can be seen as a victim of his father's remarkable success as an actor.1


By the time the boy was born, his father was forty years old and had been touring the British Isles for more than twenty years as an itinerant performer of tragedies, comedies, melodramas, and farces. An African- American, Ira Aldridge had debuted in London in 1825, playing Othello and other black roles in two metropolitan theatres in a combined run that lasted six months. But further offers of employment in the capital did not materialize, largely because of his race. No theatre could afford the luxury of hiring a black actor as a regular member of its company, so the young thespian, by then known as the African Roscius, began touring the British provinces as a visiting star. He would remain in a city or town for a week or two and then move on to the next engagement, if he could find one. Initially this was a very difficult way to make a living, but eventually, as his fame grew, he was in demand and busy most of the year moving from place to place to take up assignments with local acting companies.

At the end of his first run in London Aldridge had married Margaret Gill, an English woman ten years his elder who normally travelled with him as he made his rounds. She never had any children and would have been about fifty years old when her husband brought Ira Daniel home. We don't know exactly when this happened, and there is some uncertainty about the precise year the boy was born. Aldridge's biographers claim the birth occurred in May 1847, using as evidence a letter the father had written to a friend on 4 June 1860 stating that his son had "just entered his thirteenth year" (qtd. in Marshall and Stock 101 and 249). This dating is confirmed in the manifest of the ship Ira Daniel boarded for Australia early in February 1867, where his age is given as nineteen.2 However, in the British census of 1851, which was conducted on March 30th that year, when his father was performing in Derby, his age is recorded as two-and-a-half, which would place his birth at around September or October 1848. Also, on most Australian documents that mention his birth, 1848 is the year cited (see, e.g., "Pentridge" 208a). Perhaps these discrepancies were a result of a difference between the date he was actually born and the date he entered Margaret Aldridge's household. She brought him up as if he were her own son and may have regarded his arrival in her life as a more accurate marker of the beginning of his true existence as a child. It is possible that Ira Daniel knew nothing of the real circumstances of his birth and may have accepted 1848 as the correct year.

No one has discovered who his mother was. There has been a suggestion that she was "an Irish lady" (Scobie 132), and the 1861 census states that he was born at St. Pancras, London, but no birth certificate has surfaced to verify this or to name the mother. Suspicion naturally falls on actresses with whom Aldridge worked in theatres at Margate, Portsmouth, Landport, Wolverhampton, and Brighton approximately nine months before May 1847.

Aldridge may have had affairs with other women even earlier. The 1841 census records for Worksop, a small town southeast of Sheffield, reveal that on the day the census was taken, he was rooming in a boarding house there with a woman identified as Sarah Aldridge. …

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