Jul 22, 2015

A Black Drummer in the Seventeenth-Century Austrian Army

In December 1652, Emperor Ferdinand III went to Regensburg to take part in the Diet of Regensburg which was supposed to negotiate the unresolved issues of the Peace of Westphalia, and resulted in the Youngest Recess of 1654. During their stay in Regensburg, the Emperor and his wife Eleonora resided at the so-called "Bischofshof", the residence of the Prince-bishop of Regensburg, Franz Wilhelm von Wartenberg. Because the imperial couple's activities as godparents during their stay were recorded in the earliest surviving baptismal register of Vienna's Imperial Chapel in the Hofburg Palace, we know that in Regensburg Ferdinand and Eleonore each served twice as godparents: on 16 June 1653, Empress Eleonora, together with her stepson Ferdinand IV, stood godparent to the baptism of Eleonora, a daughter of Count Ferdinand Karl zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rochefort (1616–1672), and on 15 November 1653, together with her husband, she served as godparent of Sophia, a daughter of Maximilian, Prince of Dietrichstein. The Emperor's two godchildren during his stay in Regensburg were the aforesaid Princess Dietrichstein and a young man from Africa who, on 10 August 1653, in the St. Michael's Chapel of the bishop's palace, was christened Ferdinand Christian by the Regensburg prince-bishop Franz Wilhelm von Wartenberg. It seems that this African had belonged to the entourage of one of the attendees of the Diet, and Ferdinand III decided to take the young man under his protection.

The entry concerning the baptism of Ferdinandus Christianus Morus in the chapel of the prince-bishop's residence in Regensburg (Burgpfarre, Tom. 1, 22)
Die 10. Augusti 1653.
Ferdinandus Christianus Morus baptizatus fuit ab Ill[ustrissi]mo / Principe Ratisbonensi Francisco Willelmo. Compatre / S[ua] C[æsaria] M[aiestate] Ferdinandi Tertij in Capella Aulica Ratis- / bonæ.
On 10 August 1653.
The Moor Ferdinand Christian was baptized by the most honorable prince-bishop of Ratisbon Franz Wilhelm. As godfather officiated His Imperial Majesty Ferdinand III at the princely chapel in Ratisbon.
Ferdinand Christian took the family name "Ali" (a name that in seventeenth-century Europe was widely used for African people), he accompanied the Emperor to Vienna, and became a hartschier and tympanist in the I. & R. Army. On 4 September 1661, in Vienna, Ferdinand Christian Ali married Elisabeth Keyblinger, the daughter of a baker from Steyr in Upper Austria. Interracial marriages were extremely rare in seventeenth-century Vienna. The entry in the records of St. Stephen's Cathedral concerning Ali's wedding is highly interesting, because it conveys the extraordinary impression that the groom made on the officiating priest. First, this source documents Ali's place of birth as "Borna in Mohrnlandt", i.e. today's Negele Borana in Ethiopia's Oromia Region, where he was born around 1635-40. And second, right at the end of his entry, the priest describes the groom with the words: "Æthiops sponsus niger" ("the groom is a black man from Ethiopia") and then – obviously being impressed by Ali's handsome physique – experiences a sudden poetic association and ads the words "sed formosus." This, of course, is an allusion to a verse in the introduction of the Song of Songs: "Nigra sum sed formosa filiæ Hierusalem sicut tabernacula Cedar sicut pelles Salomonis." (I am black, but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.)

The entry concerning the wedding of Ferdinand Christian Ali on 4 September 1661 (A-Wd, Tom. 22, fol. 149v). The note "1.2.3." at the beginning refers to the three publications of the banns. Although the name "Ali" at some later time was underlined as the groom's family name, this marriage is filed under "Christian" in the index and therefore appears only under this name in the databases.
Der Edl und Kunstreich[e] Herr Ferdinandt / Christian Ali. auß Mohrnlandt von der / Statt Borna gebirtig d[er] Ro:[misch] Kay:[serlichen] Maÿ:[estät] / Härtschier und Feldt Hör Paukher. nimbt / die Erntuge[n]tsamb Junkhfrau Elisabeth / Keÿblingerin. Weilent Andreæ Kajblingers / gewesten Burger und Bekhen zu Steÿr / und Christinæ seiner Ehelich[en] Hausfr.[au] Ehe.[liche] Dochter.
Testes. Mathias Graf Kaÿ[serin] Eleonoræ Härtschier.
            Ferdina[n]d von Critzendorf.
1.2.3. / copulavi / 4° 7bris. Æthiops sponsus niger sed formosus.
The noble and artful Sir Ferdinand Christian Ali, born in the city of Borna in Ethiopia, His Roman Imperial Majesty's hartschier and field army tympanist, is taking as wedded wife the honorable and virtuous maiden Elisabeth Keyblinger, legitimate daughter of the late Andreas Keyblinger, former citizen and baker in Steyr, and Christina his married wife.
Witnesses. Mathias Graf, hartschier in the service of Empress Eleonora. / Ferdinand von Critzendorf.
1.2.3. [publications of the banns] I united them on 4 September. The groom is an Ethiopian black man, but beautiful.
How did a black drummer in the I. & R. military in Vienna make the acquaintance of a girl from Upper Austria? Elisabeth Keyblinger was born on 8 February 1640 in Steyr, daughter of the master baker Andreas Keyblinger and his wife Christina.

The entry concerning the baptism of Elisabeth Keyblinger. In the records of the Steyr Stadtpfarre. Andreas Keyblinger's name also appears as "Ghoblinger" and "Khäblinger" (Steyr, Stadtpfarre, Tom 1, 443).

Around 1650, Elisabeth's family moved to Vienna where Andreas Keyblinger established a bakery in the suburb of Neustift. He might well have supplied the army with baked goods which brought his daughter into contact with her future husband, the tympanist from Africa. The presence of Elisabeth Keyblinger's family in Neustift is well-documented. On 19 June 1667, her brother Andreas Keyblinger (b. 30 November 1641 in Steyr [Stadtpfarre, Tom. 1, 488]) got married at St. Ulrich's Church (St. Ulrich, Tom. 2, fol. 108v, and A-Wd, Tom. 23, fol. 268r). On 11 September 1652, Elisabeth Keyblinger's father died in Neustift and was buried on the following day in the St. Ulrich parish cemetery.

The entry concerning the burial of Andreas Keyblinger ("Neustift Andre Keiblinger ein bekh und nachbar") on 12 September 1652 (St. Ulrich, Tom. 2, 77)

To keep the bakery going, on 18 January 1653, Andreas Keyblinger's widow Christina married the "beckhenjung" (apprentice baker) Christoph Loder from Gleisdorf in Styria.

The entry concerning the wedding Of Christoph and Christina Keyblinger on 18 January 1653 (St. Ulrich, Tom. 1a, fol. 108v)

I have not tried to figure out how the drummer Ferdinand Christian Ali and his family fared after 1661. This might be an interesting topic of research for other historians. I just wanted to show how, in the seventeenth century, the Austrian military was eager to make use of the skills of an African musician.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Black Drummer and Commander, ca. 1638  (The British Museum, Oo,10.122)

© Dr. Michael Lorenz 2015.

Updated: 14 March 2023


  1. An extraordinary story! thanks.
    Styra Avins

  2. I was fascinated by the story of Ferdinand Christian Ali, but surely the illustration by Rembrandt bears little resemblance to what the actual Ali must have looked like, the Ethiopians generally being tall and strikingly beautiful people. But it is interesting that African drummers were not unknown in Europe at that time.

  3. I do not claim that Ali looked like Rembrandt's drummer. The illustration is supposed to be a visual plug and it has served this purpose very well.

  4. I wish someone would write a general work on the presence of black musicians, especially drummers, in European military contexts. There are numerous references to them in the British Army in the 19th and 18th centuries, but I was surprised to find how far back the tradition goes:

    "Europeans had employed black musicians and entertainers at court since at least 1194, when Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI (1165-1197) was accompanied by turbaned black trumpeters on his triumphal entry into Sicily. In 1470 a “black slave called Martino” was purchased to be the trumpeter on board the Neopolitan royal ship Barcha. Henry VII of England employed a black trumpeter named John Blanke, who was paid 8d a day in 1507. Henry VIII retained Blanke’s services. The Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511, which commemorates the celebrations that marked the birth of a short-lived son to Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon, depicts a black trumpeter believed to be Blanke." (http://www.mirandakaufmann.com/courts.html)

    There's also this tapestry: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/masterworks-n09209/lot.14.html

    1. Thank you to Dr. Lorenz for this important research and article. To respond to this writer (5 years later!) in case it is still of interest to anyone wanting to learn more, I recently was introduced to an article by Dr. Arne Spohr, who last year published the article in the Journal of American Musicological Society, “Mohr und Trompeter”: Blackness and Social Status in Early Modern Germany. The article focuses on trumpeters primarily with some reference to drummers, but I believe some of Spohr's other research focuses more on black drummers. Here is a full citation, or feel free to contact me for a PDF version of the article since I recently read it for my own research: Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 72, Number 3, pp. 613–663 ISSN 0003-0139, electronic ISSN
      1547-3848. © 2019 by the American Musicological Society.