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.