The portrait above was completed on July 4, 1775, by Gustaf Lundberg. It talks about a Black man, probably in his 80s, in Sweden, wearing fancy “Indian” clothes. This man has just won a game of chess and is holding up a white knight with so much joy. The artist, Lundberg, writes that though the man is in his 80s, “he did not need to wear spectacles or use a mahlstick to steady his hand.”
Many have found the portrait intriguing, and so is the life story of the man in it. Known as Adolf Badin, or Adolf Ludvig Gustav Fredrik Albert/Couschi, he was born in St. Croix, Danish West Indies in 1750. At the age of seven, Badin (real last name Coushi) was purchased by a Danish sea captain in St. Croix, Danish West Indies, and taken to Europe as a child slave. There, Badin was given to the Swedish Queen Lovisa Ulrika as a gift in 1757.
Towards the end of the 1750s, many Black Moors were already in Europe, some having worked as servants in courts, with others coming to the court as musicians or invited guests. At the time Badin was taken from his family and brought to the Swedish court, between 50 and 100 people of African descent had been brought to Sweden. Sources say ladies of the aristocracy at the time wanted to have Black pages in their palaces, and so Badin’s presence in the Swedish court was welcomed.
Learning and speaking German, French, and Latin fluently, Badin was educated just like any European aristocrat of that period. Becoming a butler and foster child to Queen Ulrika, he was raised alongside the royal children and allowed to do whatever he pleased in the royal palaces.
Erik Basir, who recently organized the translation of Badin’s diary, said Badin “was the first and the only member of the royal court of Sweden, of African descent, and he happened to have been raised by the Queen Lovisa Ulrika as one of her own children, and he had the same education as her children,” adding “when he grew up, he ended up being responsible for 3 different royal palaces, and he had a library of 800 books . . . and he also was the Swedish ambassador to France.”
Truly, Badin, throughout his life in Sweden, managed three royal palaces (knowing all the secret passages within the royal palaces) and kept extensive journals. His diaries, written in French, are now archived in the library of Uppsala University. He also collected books, about 800-900 volumes, but they were sold upon his death. Badin performed all these duties while also accompanying the queen on diplomatic missions and became a roving ambassador for the Swedish court.
But some historians say Badin was the queen’s experiment. Interested in science, she had set up the Swedish Academy of Science, which among others studied the origin of man and civilization. The queen made Badin an experiment in upbringing, wishing to prove philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s theories of educational development, according to a report. “There’s all these internet articles speculating that he was just this clown, this buffoon, this lackey, this black smart aleck…,” said Basir, who is not pleased with some of the reports about Badin. “I want the world to know this man [Badin] was highly intelligent, very analytical.”
Basir said the Queen trusted Badin so much so that she “gave him the keys to her vault on her deathbed, and charged him with bringing them to the princess to have them burned.” Upon Queen Ulrika’s death in 1782, Badin served three successive Swedish monarchs before he also passed away in 1822 in Stockholm aged 75.
Badin married twice but had no children. Working as a footman, assessor, servant, court secretary, chamberlain, page, ballet master, book collector, diarist, among others, Badin was indeed very dedicated to his court functions yet he is hardly talked about in Swedish history texts. People like Basir, who organized the translation of Badin’s diary with the help of money he raised through crowdsourcing, are hoping to change that.