The Last Court Morian
Stefan Aguirre Quiroga | Gothenburg University
In the summer of 1860, Norwegian author and journalist Aasmund Olvasson Vinje encountered an unexpected guest during a royal dinner party. Chronicling his journey between Christania (modern-day Oslo) and Trondheim, Vinje was writing a travelogue against the backdrop of the coronation of Charles XV, the new king of Sweden and Norway. It was in the royal entourage of Charles XV that Vinje encountered a man of African ancestry in the king’s service. Vinje later wrote in one of his most famous works, Ferdaminni fraa Sumaren 1860 (1861), that “People stared and glared more at him than the King himself”. Vinje considered the man to be greatly more enlightened than his position as a servant revealed, finding him to be a good dining companion and narrating how the man, whom Vinje only referred to as a morian, spoke not only Swedish and Norwegian but also English and French. Although Vinje never reveals the identity of the man, he was to become one of the most famous men of African ancestry in Sweden during the late nineteenth century. His name was John Panzio Tockson (also spelt Toxon). Born in approximately 1838, his early life and how he arrived in Sweden remains a mystery. A reoccurring narrative places his birthplace in Madagascar, where he was enslaved as a nine-year-old and taken on a slave ship bound for the Americas that was intercepted by a British man-of-war. Tockson was liberated, brought to England (or the Americas in some retellings), and subsequently came to Sweden. Why Tockson as a teenager in the mid-1850s ended up in the Swedish port city Gothenburg has never been revealed. Tockson promptly found employment as a garden worker in the park of the Garden Society of Gothenburg upon his arrival and later found work in a variety of different occupations, including as a railroad worker, and even allegedly returned to sea for a short period (in a lurid note, Swedish newspapers commented that there was a possibility that he returned to Africa to get revenge on his former enslaver). Upon his return to Sweden, he caught the attention of Colonel Ludvig Wästfelt, commander of the Älvsborg regiment, who promptly employed Tockson as his personal servant in 1857. It was through Colonel Wästfelt that Tockson first met Charles XV. Although details are yet again sparse, Tockson found himself in the king's service by 1860.
Tockson was not the only servant of African ancestry who had served at the Swedish court. The word morian, meaning an individual with black skin colour, used by Vinje to describe Tockson is attested for as early as the sixteenth century in Swedish dictionaries. However, the presence of individuals of African ancestry in Sweden predates the term. The most visible people of African ancestry in Sweden were those attached to the Swedish royal court, and it is those whom we know most about today. The presence of African peoples at European royal courts and in the household of the nobility was a common sight that began to be popularised in the fifteenth century and reached its height of popularity in the eighteenth century. Their journey to a royal court, like Tockson, was connected to slavery. During the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, Swedish ships and agents participated in the transatlantic slave trade, with Sweden becoming a society with enslaved persons upon its acquisition of the Caribbean island Saint Barthélemy as a colony from France in 1784. While few enslaved Africans came to the Swedish royal court through Saint Barthélemy, enslaved individuals were commonly purchased abroad by wealthy Swedish individuals who subsequently brought them to Sweden. Other individuals of African ancestry had an enslaved past but came to Sweden as travellers, migrants, free servants, or seamen.
A famous example of another African at the Swedish royal court was Gustav Badin (c. 1747/50-1822). Born enslaved on the Danish Caribbean island Saint Croix, he was given as a “gift” by his Danish enslaver to Queen Lovisa Ulrika in 1760. As a child at the royal court, Badin was an Enlightenment experiment in free upbringing and was allowed to roam the halls of the royal castle freely and to act “natural”, behaviour that reinforced contemporary white European ideas of African peoples as uncivilised savages. This was reflected in the name “Badin” (meaning jester) that he was given to replace his actual name, Couchi. As an adult, Badin became a trusted member of the royal court. After he was baptised in 1768, Badin worked as a servant for Queen Lovisa Ulrika and later Princess Sophia Albertina. As a result of the education given to him at the behest of the royal family, Badin became an intellectual, writing poetry and collecting books. Ultimately the cultivator of a royal estate, describing himself as “the farmer Adolf Ludvig Gustaf Albert Couchi. He was born among the thralls, but when the lightness came, he wished to die as free.”
During his time in the king's employment, Tockson held various roles. He was the king’s personal valet, his stable hand, and perhaps most famously, his “pipe cleaner” (piprensare), the man whose responsibility it was to clean and stuff the king’s pipe. Tockson stood out amongst the court servants not only because of the colour of his skin but by how he was dressed. Unlike white servants, Tockson had to wear clothing that emphasised his status as an exotic inclusion in the Swedish court. In a painting by Fritz von Dardel of the midsummer celebrations in Ulriksdal in 1868, we see Tockson dancing with a woman while wearing a red fez, a red and yellow vest, baggy blue breeches, and yellow boots. Meant to invoke European fantasies about Turkish courtly life, Tockson’s clothes à la turque help to explain why Charles XV specifically wanted an African servant at his court: Tockson was a fashionable and exotic status symbol, as all servants of African ancestry were in Europe, who became a living embodiment of the king’s wealth and power. Privately, Tockson dispensed with all theatre costumes. In two extraordinary photographs from the same period, Tockson is shown the way he wanted to be seen: as a well-dressed gentleman in a frock coat, a cigar in one hand and a walking cane in the other, with a top hat within reach.
The circumstances surrounding Tockson’s leave from the royal court are shrouded in uncertainty and gossip, but Tockson left by 1870, likely acquiring a small pension in the process from the king, who passed away later in 1872. Settling down in Stockholm, he married a Swedish woman with whom he had two children, in addition to the three children he had from previous relationships. During his later years in Sweden, Tockson worked in a variety of different jobs to support himself and his family. Throughout the 1870s, Swedish newspapers reported on Tockson’s occasional appearances in public life. In the late 1870s, newspapers suggest that he worked as an assistant and interpreter for magician Doctor Epstein’s tour in Sweden. His last workplace was a billiard hall, where he would die suddenly from a stroke in July 1887.
The life of John Panzio Tockson in Sweden reflects the experiences of many people of African ancestry in Europe during the nineteenth century. His life speaks of migration against the backdrop of an enslaved past and of commodification and racialisation. Tockson was consciously put forward by the king to be seen as a curiosity. Whether it was the paintings of his exoticised image, the sight of him alongside the king at the Trondheim cathedral in 1860, or the mention of him (“Here you have the pipe cleaner in a red hat!”) in famed Swedish writer August Strindberg’s novel Det nya riket (1882), the objectification of Tockson’s black body defined his time at the court. It continued years after his death through the publication of the novel Karl XV:s Piprensare (1891), a fictional narrative of Tockson’s life by Sven Olof Roth.
Lost in the commodification of Tockson’s body is his own agency and humanity, something we only get brief glimpses of in the surviving source material. What did Tockson think about his life in Sweden? A lone archival reference provides a small tantalising window into this question. In 1931, a man who had worked as a shepherd boy at Bäckaskog castle during the 1860s remembered a private encounter with Tockson. Still vividly able to describe Tockson’s exoticised outfit from memory, the man narrated that Tockson confessed that it was tiring to be black because “the others just looked down at him.” Remaining a well-known figure after he left the court, Tockson re-entered a world where he was no longer alone in being African. The larger story of the late nineteenth-century black population in Sweden has yet to be fully explored. Still, as the last personal valet of African ancestry to the king, Tockson was the last of his kind in a long tradition stretching back hundreds of years.
Hakim Adi, African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History (London: Allen Lane, 2022).
Johanna Berg, The History of Afro-Swedes (Swedish National Museums of World Culture, 2022).
Olivette Otele, African Europeans: An Untold History (London: Hurst, 2020).
Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anne Kuhlmann, Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2016).
T.F. Earle, and K.J.P. Lowe, Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Stefan Aguirre Quiroga is a PhD student in history at the Department of Historical Studies, Gothenburg University, Sweden. As part of his research into historical memory, he has explored the presence of individuals of African ancestry in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and the memory struggles surrounding their inclusion in twentieth century historical representations. He is the author of White Mythic Space: Racism, the First World War, and Battlefield 1 (2022).