On May 18, 1778, four hundred British officers and elite Philadelphians embarked on a regatta down the Delaware River. This aquatic procession kicked off the Meschianza, an extravagant fete to honor General William Howe (1729-1814) and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe (1726-99), on their departure from North America. General Howe’s army took control of Philadelphia in September 1777, and the British occupation of the city in 1777-78 featured a busy schedule of concerts, parties, and other entertainments. The Meschianza—which derives its name from mescolanza, the Italian word for “mixture” or “medley”—was the climax of this social season.
Organized by Major John André (1750-80), the Meschianza included a mock jousting tournament between two groups of British officers, the Knights of the Blended Rose and the Knights of the Burning Mountain, on the plain between the Delaware River and Walnut Grove (an estate near Fifth Street and Washington Avenue, later demolished to make way for the urbanization of South Philadelphia). After a procession through two triumphal arches, one in honor of each of the Howe brothers, the guests enjoyed dancing and fireworks, and then dined in a mirrored tent. The young, marriageable daughters of Philadelphia’s colonial elite—including Peggy Chew (1760-1824) and Rebecca Franks (1760-1823)—appeared in Turkish costumes, and enslaved Africans in turbans and sashes waited on the guests.
The opulence of the Meschianza made it an easy target for patriotic satire. After the British defeat at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, just six weeks after the Meschianza, General Anthony Wayne (1745-96) quipped: “The Knights of the Blended Rose & Burning Mount… have resigned their Laurels.”
Christian DuComb, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of theatre and English at Colgate University and the author of Haunted City: Three Centuries of Racial Impersonation in Philadelphia (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016). (Author information current at time of publication.)
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