(1) Jim Hercules (2) Court blackamoor livery
A few years shy of a century ago, Nicholas II, last of the Russian tsars, enjoyed the protection of what historian Robert K. Massie called “a gaudily fantastic quartet of bodyguards. Four gigantic Negroes dressed in scarlet trousers, gold-embroidered jackets, curved shoes and white turbans stood outside the study where the Tsar was at work, or the boudoir where the Empress was resting."
Anna Vyrubova notes in her memoirs Memories of the Russian Court that "they were not soldiers and had no function except to open doors and to signal by a sudden noiseless entrance into a room that one of Their Majesties was about to appear."
"Although all of these men were referred to at court as Ethiopians, one was an American Negro named Jim Hercules.” That passage, from Massie’s book Nicholas and Alexandra, goes on to report Hercules would return from visits stateside bearing jars of guava jelly for the tsar’s children, and that “he was an employee, bound to the family only by loyalty.”
In his book, The Court of the Last Tsar, author and Romanov historian Greg King sheds more light on the famous blackamoor at the Court of the Russian tsars. King notes that Hercules was "born to former slaves in the American South in 1867," and that he "took advantage of the freedom after the Civil War and moved to New York City, where be became a boxer. In the 1880s, Hercules toured Europe, finally settling in London and taking British citizenship." King goes on to say that "Empress Maria Feodorovna invited him to Russia, where Alexander III offered him a position as an Abyssinian Guard."
While visiting the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, Prince Christopher of Greece noted his impressions: "Tall, splendidly built, in their wide trousers and scarlet turbans they stood immobile as though they had been cast in bronze."
A play based on the life of Jim Hercules has opened the Montgomery College's Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. Hercules in Russia runs until March 4th. For tickets and information, click here.
© Royal Russia. 16 February, 2012