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Representations of the "Hottentot Venus" and the development of nineteenth-century french national identity

Robin Mitchell





My research interests include the study of race and gender in French history, specifically the intersection of these constructions in the development of nineteenth-century French national identity. My dissertation examines how and why widespread and surprisingly commonplace representations of black women were produced, propagated, and utilized between the 1780s and 1914 in Parisian society, especially in relation to French colonialism. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803, for example, resulted in the stunning and transformative loss of France’s most important colony, Saint Domingue, and led to the creation of the Negro State of Haiti in 1804. When the reputed “savages” defeated the French military, France’s previous vision of its own racial and tactical superiority suffered a profound setback.

French social, cultural and political upheavals in this era resulted in an emerging need for a more concrete and stable national identity, often augmented by oppositional and malleable definitions of blackness. Moreover, the volatile relationships between France and its other black colonies, including French West Africa, Martinique and Guadeloupe, heightened tensions over the diminishing power of France’s political and social hegemonies, undermined French pride and identity, and fuelled questions over what it meant to be truly French, as well as how to impose that self-definition at home and abroad.

I would like to share with the scholars at the Black European Studies Interdisciplinary Conference my work on Sarah Bartmann, also known as The Hottentot Venus. A discussion of her time in Paris highlights the usefulness of specific representations of black women in the development of nineteenth-century Parisian bourgeois identity. The outrageous spectacle of Bartmann on display, and the remarkable ease with which her body was exploited illuminates the translation of black women’s bodies in particularly public fashion in nineteenth-century Paris, and demonstrates deeply rooted representations of black women are in French culture. The manner in which the French (re)constructed Bartmann intensified and conflated ideas about race, class, gender, and sexuality in their own society, and reveals nationalist and colonialist tensions at their most volatile levels. Her body and her image were used to establish nationalistic boundaries; her supposed abnormalities were exaggerated to articulate all that was excessive and therefore dangerous in bourgeois French society.

Images of and writings about Bartmann presented a discursive field in which white French men and women could work out their fears and anxieties over political and social transitions; this racial rhetoric, whether expressed explicitly or implicitly in popular culture, colonial publications or scientific discourse, facilitated the construction of French identity. Even though the nineteenth century is rightly considered a time of colonial expansion for France (as well as an opportunity to re-assert itself as a world power), the early part of the century can also be seen as a time of French division and tension, especially with regard to its failures in Haiti, and in its contemplation of future colonial expansion in Africa. Representations of black women like Bartmann highlight these complexities.

Questions for the conference:


  1. How do we define Black European history and the shifting patterns of black European identities? After first contact on European soil or the children of those migrants (forced or voluntary)?


  2. Is it useful to “borrow” identity models from other settings? If necessary, how do we re-define the criteria of black European identities and the history of the African Diaspora in Europe?


  3. How do we identify and locate source materials when race is not recorded?



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