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The Stuntwoman Named for a Continent

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Arts & Culture

In the late summer of 1866, a black equestrian stuntwoman made her Paris debut and galvanized the city. She was known only as “Sarah the African,” and history has left us few traces of her: just some battered posters, inky clippings, and burlesque scripts. Sarah was, in the words of the men who wrote about her, “the finest horsewoman of the King of Morocco,” “an Ethiopian,” or “a statue of Florentine bronze.” A “negress” who performed as neither slave nor clown, whose name evoked Sarah Baartman, the Khoikhoi woman dissected by Georges Cuvier just a few decades before in Paris, and Selika, the queen heroine of Meyerbeer’s hit posthumous opera, L’Africaine. She was a woman named for a whole continent.

Sarah made her debut at the second Paris Hippodrome: an open-air arena in what is now the Place Victor Hugo, a little less fancy than the elaborate circus buildings then being constructed in the city. Clowns, trained animals, aerialists, and balloonists performed there before an audience of five thousand Parisians of all classes, sharing a lineup with spectacular historical enactments and horse races. The jockeys for some of these races were women—whom Albert Montémont called “frisky amazons”—who rode sidesaddle or drove chariots as they lashed their whips. There were also écuyères or horsewomen who performed dressage or dainty acrobatics involving flower garlands or handkerchiefs. And then there was Sarah, mounted astride, one hand gripping a fistful of mane, pistols in her belt.

On her debut in September she was billed above Méphistophélès the bareback horse, above a race of forty horses all mounted by women, above the rubber horseman, William Meyer, and even above Mlle Adèle, who made her Sidy-Laraby dance with no reins. The indefatigable impresario Pierre-Célestin Arnault was her boss and champion, and he laid it on thick for the press. “Nothing is more extraordinary than this femme sauvage,” he exclaimed. She was the daughter of a king, he said, she was the daughter of many kings!

I apologize that I can’t bring Sarah (or Sara—the journalists who wrote about her weren’t fussy about the spelling) the African to you in her own words, or even in photographic form. You get her filtered, drawn and written by white Frenchmen. But beyond the pidgin lines they attributed to her and their own beard-stroking critiques, we can glimpse a little of the real Sarah and her very real bravery and skill.

In the long oval of the Hippodrome, there was a race with dwarf jockeys. Then Sarah took to the track and began her “infernal exercises.” For six weeks, she galloped devilishly fast around the Hippodrome on her champagne-colored horse, hanging over his side by one foot as he leapt hurdles four feet high. Her cries could be heard above the orchestra as she fired shots from two pistols at imaginary pursuers, her head jerking just above the ground. No one could match the leaps she made or the way she pulled the splits. Sarah would not be caught nor equaled. She shared the runs with no one.

Paris was on the downward slope: past the tipping point of the Second Empire, past Haussmann’s gleaming reordering of the city, heading full-steam and double-hubris toward the almighty comeuppance that was the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Slavery had been abolished in French colonies, but Napoleon III was busy expanding his empire to gobble up chunks of Africa and Asia. The mission civilisatrice was not quite in full swing, and there was still space for a black woman to make a name for herself using the monstrous curiosity of Frenchmen.

When the Hippodrome first opened in 1856, the writer Théophile Gautier expressed his disappointment that the “femmes primitives” promised on the program were not “savage amazons, clad in leopardskins and riding naked” but girls in diaphanous dresses riding sidesaddle. When they came out, the audience hissed loudly. Ten years on, Arnault had finally delivered, though Sarah’s audacity involved physical courage, not nudity. She gave the crowd what they wanted—performing the part of the wild, exotic black woman with bravado—but she also reinvented the cliché of the femme sauvage.

The typical femme sauvage of French circuses and sideshows in the nineteenth century was not supposed to demonstrate skill, let alone pull off a soldier’s stunts on horseback. She was grotesque, the lowest in the circus’s curious hierarchy. In an illustration for Gaston Escudier’s Les Saltimbanques, leur vie, leurs moeurs, the femme sauvage is presented “d’après nature” with skin blackened with oil and ink, a spiked club, feather crown, nose ring, and the head of an animal, perhaps a big cat, hanging over her crotch. The femme sauvage appears, typically, in a cage, perhaps guarded by heavies, and after doing a suitably “primitive” dance and speaking “mumbo jumbo,” she begins to eat broken glass and raw chicken (both glass and chicken were disappeared by slight of hand, and the nerve-shivering crunching was made off stage).

In a prose poem, Baudelaire threatens a pampered mistress: “I will treat you as a femme sauvage, and throw you away like an empty bottle.” In urban legends, the femmes sauvages were battered white Frenchwomen who had run away from their husbands to join the circus. In those tales, just as the bearded, blacked-up femme sauvage is breaking rocks on her stomach, the husband appears, crying “Jeanette!” or “Thérèse!”, slaps her, and drags her back to domesticity. Sarah, with her pistols, would have fought them off.

On the Hippodrome’s posters, Sarah L’Africaine wears a feather crown and a leopard skin, and her perky horse bounds through a jungle with her bow and notched arrow at its ears. She has peppered a tiger with arrows, and a leopard with a human face is cowering back as a bold lion leaps toward her. But this image is misleading. One critic griped that Sarah was much too clothed for a femme sauvage—she wore brightly colored skirts like any other female acrobat, when she should have been “simply dressed in a black costume and some black feathers.” “Black women love white, blue and red—without attaching the least political importance to their preferred colors,” he went on, “but that’s no reason for the director to let them jettison their local color.”

Why shouldn’t a black woman in 1860s Paris wrap herself in liberté, égalité, and fraternité? One journalist says Sarah “came from America where she had already been a great success.” It’s tempting to think of her freshly arrived in France the year the Civil War ended. Or perhaps she was one of many Parisians of Haitian descent, whose family had fought in the revolution in that former colony. That flash of white, blue, and red doesn’t offer us enough cloth for a backstory, and Pierre-Célestin Arnault had devised a more exotic history for her anyway. He wanted his star to be more princess than cannibal.

Le Nouvel Illustré ran two engravings showing Sarah’s early life as a bare-breasted beauty worthy of the lead role in Meyerbeer’s new hit opera, L’Africaine. There are skulls on spikes and palm trees in the background. According to Le Nouvel Illustré, Sarah was a “pure blood” Nubian (“pur sang” is the term for thoroughbred horses) from “the village of Derr, capital of Nubia,” which is “the Auvergne of Egypt,” as all the servants come from there. Sarah was from an old, formerly royal family and had been married by her father to one of the clerks of a European ivory trader. But alas, she was coveted by an Abyssinian chief who offered thirty tusks for her and then gave her in turn to the Abyssinian emperor Théodorus for his harem. Poor Sarah! But her husband came to rescue her, and they escaped via the Nile, through the rapids and ferocious hippopotami and snapping crocodiles. They stole barely tamed horses (this is how Sarah learned to ride) and escaped the vengeful Théodorus, who was in hot pursuit. And somehow she showed up in Paris, in Arnault’s Hippodrome, as a wronged maiden fallen on hard times—and equipped with fire arms.

 

engraving from Nouvel Illustré

 

Whatever the humbug, the crowds loved her outrageous courage and the way she rode inches from death. The critics sat back and weighed in. “Strange and curious” said one. “This negress, very well done, is not to be discounted, above all as an audacious vaulter,” said the critic from the Revue de Paris, from his comfortable ringside seat. “With an agility without equal she makes leaps, splits and bounds that can’t help but stir.” Another journalist said the gauzy horse girls at the Hippodrome could do the same as her if they were willing. She has “pearly teeth, boot-black, lottery-ball eyes” complained another. And then there was the Figaro art critic, Albert Wolff, who wrote, “She leaps and vaults on horseback like a monkey. Nothing is more curious.” Arnault used the quote on a poster. What sort of man, driven by what greed, asked theatrical director Léon Sari in Le Pays a few days later, labels the woman he’d called an angel—his idol—a monkey? As Sarah discovered later that year, Arnault would not be the only one to capitalize on the slur.

Sarah’s trajectory through midcentury celebrity was rapid but short. That December, it intersected with the far starrier orbit of another equestrian stuntwoman: Adah Isaacs Menken.

Menken had galloped, strapped to the back of “wild” horse and wearing very little, about the stage in the global hit, Mazeppa, her skin darkened with burnt cork. She was so famous that year that her image was printed on china tea sets and fashionable ladies cut their hair short and tangled à la Mazeppa. In Paris, she played to sold-out crowds and became the lover of the famous writer Alexandre Dumas, son of the French general they called the Black Devil and grandson of a freed Haitian slave.

 

 

When Menken was too ill to perform yet another wild ride strapped to the back of a horse in The Pirates of the Savannah, her theater boasted that Sarah L’Africaine would step in. This was more theatrical bunkum. Sarah’s contract with Arnault forbade this, and yet the press took off with the story, spinning publicity for both The Pirates and the Hippodrome. “You want my African!” demanded Arnault with a wink. “Never! Never in the world will you abduct my black pearl, the most beautiful of my jewel box.”

The tone changed when Dumas’s journal, Le Mousquetaire, published a letter demanding to know how Menken, an artist and “beauty itself,” could be replaced by “a negress who is absolute ugliness everywhere except in Guinea or Senegambia, and who probably had no other teachers than the monkeys from whom she took courses in the Coconut trees?” Was it Dumas himself, or Albert Wolff, his former secretary, once more chipping in? Sarah had leapt too bravely and too well for a black woman, and now the earlier rhapsodies about a “black gazelle” and “Florentine bronze” gave way to mockery.

That December, a woman playing Sarah erupted onto the stage in a comic review at the Théâtre Folies-Saint-Germain and began to dance and sing her tale. “Is it one of your monkeys?” asked another character. This burlesque Sarah was a queen once in Africa, whose husband went to war and imprisoned her in a harem. The blacked-up actress, Louise Berthal, explained in pidgin French, “Me don’t want to say/What me did there.” This Sarah also stole a horse and galloped all the way to the Hippodrome, where she planned to raise an army of écuyères for protection. “Everyone comes to see the Virgin of the Desert galloping,” she says, and when she’s questioned (“Wait a minute! What about your husband and the harem?”) she snaps back: “Hippodrome poster always lie.”

In April 1867, the real Sarah was back at the Hippodrome in Paris—perhaps following a rumored but untraceable trip to London—but things were beginning to unravel. Her luck was off, and the critics yawned “Go back to the desert, Sarah” when she risked her life in the same old ways. At one performance, her horse stumbled as it leaped over a hurdle, and they were both sent sprawling on the ground, Sarah taking a sharp blow to the head. She leapt up, grabbed the startled horse as he got to his feet, scrambled onto him, and they flew on as if nothing had happened. In July, her pistols were wrongly primed and failed, and her wild ride was a squib. Backstage, she threw herself off her horse and upon the prop master. When he denied all incompetence, she bit a chunk out of his arm (if you believe the papers). She went to the police station to register a complaint about ineffectual firearm charging, but they would have none of it, and M. Arnault had had enough. Perhaps Sarah had had enough of Arnault, too. She did not appear at the Hippodrome again.

But she remained a performer, and she did not go back to the fictional ivory trader in Nubia or to that hypothetical early career in America. The circus world took her in, appreciating her skill and her bankability. Now and then she surfaced in the newspapers: in the Circus Loisset at the Champ de Foire in 1869, in a benefit in the Haut-Loire in 1875 with her “infernal vaulting.” And though that all-encompassing surname means that she’s vanished from any official record, she left a memory, a disturbance, under those old images of femmes sauvage and others that were still to come, of a black woman squinting down the barrel of a loaded pistol, dressed in the colors of liberty.

 

Susanna Forrest is the author of The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History and If Wishes Were Horses. She’s currently working on a third book and a series of essays about circus horsewomen in nineteenth-century Paris.