By Jonas Vesterlund
Of the people of the African diaspora who found themselves in Europe in the 18th century, Gustav Badin’s tale is a very unusual one. He was a butler, farmer, lawyer, emissary and a member of the Swedish Royal family.
In 1757 the Queen of Sweden, Louisa Ulrika of Prussia, received a ‘gift’ from Danish politician Anders von Resier – a 7 year old boy of African descent.
The queen had been reading the writings of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, particularly about the origin of man and civilization. She decided to raise the boy with her own children. He grew up as a playmate to the royal children, who were brought up in a much more restricted way than he was, and was allowed to speak to them in a natural way and even fight and tease them, which was considered scandalous. Contemporary diaries describe how he climbed on the thrones of the king and queen, called everyone “you” instead of using their titles, and talked rudely to the nobility. He was considered very witty and verbal.
He was given the name Badin, the French (the language of the Swedish court at the time) word for trickster or joker. Badin was fluent in Swedish, French, German and Latin.
In December 1768, he was baptized in the Royal chapel with the entire royal family as his godparents and given the full name Adolf Ludvig Gustav Fredrik Albert Badin, all traditional royal names.
Badin himself said his birth parents called him Couchi, and he had memories of a hut being on fire, but he could not remember if this happened in East Africa or Saint Croix, a Caribbean island which at the time belonged to Denmark. Most historians claims he was brought to Sweden by the Danish West India Company.
As an adult he first served as a butler to Queen Louisa Ulrika, and after her death, his foster sister Princess Sophia Albertine. The royal family gave him three estates to take care of, and he usually referred to himself as a farmer. Badin also served as the Queen’s Emissary to France on several occasions. His foster brother, King Gustav III awarded him the title Assessor, a Scandinavian term for a judge who has been a district court clerk for two years, or judge’s assistant, but he turned down the title. This implies he might have had a law degree.
This was a very tumultuous time in Swedish history. His foster brother Gustav III, became king in 1771. He was not interested in political power however, and rather loved the stage and theatre. He also handed over a lot of power to the common classes, something that angered the nobility. Badin seems to have shared his foster brother’s interest in theatre, and participated in several plays and stage productions. Gustav III was assassinated at a masked ball on March 16, 1792, by a group of noblemen angry over the influence of commoners.
Gustav III was a huge patron of Carl Michael Bellman, a Swedish poet, songwriter, composer and performer. Bellman is a central figure in the Swedish song tradition and remains a powerful influence in Swedish music, as well as in Scandinavian literature. Several of his songs are still sung as nursery rhymes to this day. Bellman and Badin co-wrote several songs together.
While most people of his time referred to him as Badin, aka the trickster or joker, it is important to stress he was far from the stereotypical fast-talking, rowdy, dark-skinned character popularized in modern Hollywood films. He might have been witty, but the fact that the Royal family trusted him with all their secrets; his assumed law degree; the responsibility of handling royal estates; and the ever important relationship to France disproves any such stereotype.
The argument has been made that Badin is a central and un-named hero of modern day Sweden. When the queen gave him a quality education, something only accessible to the nobility at the time, it proved that a strong public education is the foundation for anyone to grow and succeed. This might also have influenced King Gustav III to turn his back on the nobility, and while he met an early death, the aristocracy never regained their influence, and would slowly lose their influence over the next decades.
Gustav Badin died in 1877, age 75. By this time he was an honored member of several fraternal orders, including the Freemasons, and left a collection of 900 books, mostly in French, many with his own comments and underlining. He was married twice, but had no children.
Not only was he present for some of the major milestones in Swedish history, he also seems to have influenced the idea that education should be made available to everybody.