The Story of the “Black Gazelle” of the Paris Hippodrome: Sarah L’Africaine

A new essay on an equestrian stuntwoman who set Second Empire Paris alight: Sarah l’Africaine, following on from an earlier piece about the mystery horsewoman Selika Lazevski.

Here’s some information about my sources:

Most of the firsthand material is combed from Gallica, the incredible, searchable digital collection of the French national library.

The quotations in this section:

Dumas’ 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?”

are quoted and translated by Kari Weil in the excellent “Purebreds and Amazons: saying things with horses in late-nineteenth-century France” differences, a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, Spring 1999.

On the grotesque tradition of the “femme sauvage”:

Nichola A Haxell’s “‘Ces Dames du Cirque’: A Taxonomy of Male Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Art” was invaluable. You can read it here.

Les Saltimbanques, leur vie, leurs moeurs (1875) by Gaston Escudier has drawings by P de Crauzat. Note the name of the femme sauvage in my rough translation here:

Screenshot 2019-10-11 at 2.28.54 PM

“a wild woman who appears in an iron cage, surrounded by four gendarmes with a sabre in their fists, and near whom stands a man who reddens iron bars on a stove.
This savage, having executed the dance of her country, prays, emits the war cry of the desert and devours her pieces of glass as we crunch on nuts. – There it is, incidentally, her ordinary fare – The thing used is worth being recounted.
They present the savage a plate piled with slivers of bottles; she throws herself on them, grabs them in her hands, thrusts them into her mouth and breaks them between her teeth so she can swallow them with extraordinary voracity. What a gullet!
What the public does not see is that the so-called savage pretends to take the pieces of glass from the plate, while in reality she doesn’t pick up any. The noise heard is made in the wings by a compere, who strikes some pieces of glass against one another, or by some bonbons that the savage crunches (which replicates the sound of glass perfectly when you crunch them between your teeth) This scene has a fantastic effect, and the public lets itself be taken in.
The savage then talks in her “native tongue” with whoever wants to engage with her. An oddball, one day, engaged in conversation with her:
– Chi coic libi kerr?
– yes, very good (in English), replied the lad.
– kara birsoic keres ser maderas?
– Das ist ganz gut.
And the lad stepped into the theatre to talk to her more closely:
– Sarah! Sarah! Mahien tier?
– Si, si parla l’italiano, sauvago buono.
This conversation went on in this fashion for two minutes, and the public believed that it happened, when the lad, making a faux pas, opened the bars and fell, by accident, on the femme sauvage, who cried, ‘Oh! Monsieur, please, don’t do me any harm!’
You can imagine the amusement of the crowd. It required the intervention of the police to prevent the savage, the saltimbanque and all the material from being demolished.
That’s one anecdote among thousands”

Screenshot 2019-10-11 at 2.28.39 PM

He also relates this anecdote:

“This little scene reminds me of another where the theatre was, at Versailles, the stage of a femme sauvage.
A monsieur entered the loge, saw the savage on her stage, listened closely to the sound of her voice, threw himself on her, seized her by the arms and cried,
– Ah! So this is how you left me, Thérèse, to become a femme sauvage! Right! Follow me!
–heavens, it’s my husband! She cried, and fainted.
It really was her husband, whom she had left. It seemed that she had one obsession, of performing as a femme sauvage, and one fine day, she something the home to install herself in a fairground stall. Inquiries made, I later learned that the poor Thérèse, whose husband so strongly denied her talents, donned the garb of the femme sauvage every night, and received her friends thus.
Voila, we agree, a singular obsession. And if, this winter, you encounter at a masked ball a grand woman disguised as a Hottentot, you can say:
– It’s Thérèse, the savage of Versailles.
If she managed to make her husband adopt the same costume, they would make a fine couple, all the more so if her husband blacked up like a negro.”

Le Figaro du Théâtre ran this story on 11 November 1866 at the height of Sarah’s fame:

“We read in the Vigie de Cherbourg:
Monday 29 October, one of the parades of many performers who were established at a fairground at Maladerie at Caen, was brightened up by an unexpected scene.
Among the remarkable subjects announced by the clown, as taking part in the show, was a femme sauvage, who, head crowned with feathers, face adorned by a magnificent black beard, warmed up for her performance by eating flaming oakum.
The femme sauvage should break rocks on her stomach, and, dressed in the guise of a crinoline, the kilos “of the coarsest kind” as the grand Bilboquet but it.
As the clown detailed all the marvels that, for the price of ten centimes, could unfurl beneath the astonished eyes of the spectators, a peasant did not lose sight of the femme sauvage.
– Jeanette! he cried.
At this name the femme sauvage turned in astonishment.
– Not a doubt! It’s her! replied the peasant.
And he threw himself on the stage, seized the beard that had shortly before drawn the admiration of the crowd, and pushed on the perfectly beardless cheek, the most vigorous slap that had ever rung out on the rock breaker.
The woman was none other than the peasant’s wife, who lived near Saint-Lô, and whom she had abandoned to follow her love, proving that she was evidently less savage than she appeared.”

The Baudelaire poem is “La femme sauvage et la petite maîtresse”.

Revues and satires featuring Sarah:

Je me le demande, at the Théâtre Folies Saint-Germaine in December 1866. Sarah was played by Louise Berthal, whom you can see here.

Les Thugs à Paris was co-written by Albert Wolff (him again) and Eugene Grange and performed that November. Here Sarah was played by “Silly”.

Sarah in London:

Towards the end of my research I saw a brief note saying that Sarah was due to go to London to perform that winter. I couldn’t find any obvious trace of her and wonder how she would have been received, given that Black people had been attacked in London the previous year following a rebellion in Jamaica. But she would have just missed Sarah Redmond, an American anti-slavery activist who had been lecturing in the city.

I did find that the Agricultural Hall in Islington had hosted a show organised by Robert Sanger (of the circus dynasty) called Congress of the Monarchs, a spectacular featuring people impersonating kings and queens of many nations. It opened around Christmas in 1866 and closed at the end of February in 1867. Perhaps Sarah was in the cast, though I couldn’t find a detailed listing.

On Adah Isaacs Menken‘s own adoption of blackface and her depiction as white, read Daphne Brooks’ Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. I’ve written a little about Adah in The Age of the Horse and in this essay on wild horses and Mazeppa, but haven’t included her in this écuyères series because much has already been written about her, and it’s as wild a ride as she took on that horse.

The specialist archives and libraries and their very helpful staff were:

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, especially the Département des Arts du Spectacle
Paris Archives/Fonds Paul Haynon
Sammlung Variété, Zirkus, Kabarett at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin
Bibliothèque Musée de l’Opéra, Paris – they have a surviving poster of Sarah in action, described in the essay.
Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty, Université Paris 3
National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield
Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, where I was lucky enough to be a writer in residence this February.

Published by Susanna Forrest

Author of The Age of the Horse: an Equine Journey Through Human History and If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession.

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