Wuthering Heights: Reverse Colonialism and the Imperial Gothic Tradition

Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ 
– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, p.40.

In Gothic fiction of the Victorian period, concepts of the racial other become inextricably linked with fin-de-siècle fears of imperial decline and subsequent degeneration. More specifically, characters that are denounced as racially distinct are often viewed as figures of abjection and fear; they are the ‘marauding, invasive other[s]’ in which ‘British culture sees its own imperial practices mirrored back in monstrous forms’.[1] This monstrosity is accentuated through a denouncement of the racial other as recidivist, linked intimately to notions of both moral and physical degeneracy. However, this degeneracy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights not only internalises fears of Victorian England’s ‘devolution’ into a more primitive and morally degraded state of being, but more widely comes to critique and accentuate the increasing fragility of the British empire itself. This Victorian Gothic work is an example of the ‘imperial Gothic’, playing on Victorian anxieties.[2] In their respective representations of the racial Other, the texts come to highlight anxieties surrounding Victorian societies supposedly morally supreme status, presenting images of reverse imperialism to accentuate the decline of the British empire.

Anxieties surrounding colonial decline are clearly accentuated in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel which Susan Meyer argues acts as ‘an extended critique of British Imperialism.’[3] Heathcliff, an orphan of ambiguous racial origin, becomes the embodiment of the racial ‘Other’; his social position and actions threaten the rigid imperialistic class structures engrained in the fabric of the rigid model of the Victorian family home, as well as the position of England as colonial superior. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff is repeatedly collocated with notions of racial inferiority; he is frequently compared to darkness and criminality, his uncertain race alluding to a supposedly corrupted underlying spirit.[4] These notions of otherness are first accentuated through Heathcliff’s introduction to the Earnshaw family. Nelly declares that:

We crowded round, and, over Miss Cathy’s head, I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk- indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s – yet, when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand.[5]

From his very introduction, Heathcliff is displaced as a figure of ‘Otherness’ that is scarcely acknowledged to even belong to the same species as those surrounding him. His ‘black’ hair, coupled with his ‘dirty’ and ‘ragged’ appearance (p.25), places him entirely at odds with the middle-class Earnshaw children. Heathcliff’s racial ambiguity consequently becomes associated with the dirt that masks his face, contrasting starkly with the white skinned ‘purity’ of Catherine and Hindley.[6] Heathcliff’s otherness further becomes demarcated through the Earnshaw’s inability to comprehend his speech, resulting in the denouncement of Heathcliff as merely speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25). It is in the adjective ‘gibberish’ that racial superiority is ultimately compounded; in speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25), defined as ‘unintelligible or meaningless speech or writing; nonsense’, Heathcliff finds himself silenced through a racial prejudice that denounces his voice as unimportant ‘nonsense’. [7] In doing so the Earnshaw family, including Nelly, attempt to silence Heathcliff under the colonial gaze; the family denounce Heathcliff as racially inferior in order to affirm their own colonially superior social position.[8] As Susan Meyer observes, Heathcliff finds himself ‘pronounced upon as if he were a specimen of some strange animal species’, ‘subjected to the potent gaze of racial arrogance deriving from British imperialism.’[9] Through this gaze, Heathcliff finds himself marginalised and consigned to social and class inferiority.

However, although treated as an inferior racial other, continual interest in Heathcliff’s ambiguous racial ancestry accentuates the liminality of his position and the threat this poses to the surrounding gentrified families. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff finds himself continually collocated with countries synonymous with imperial resistance and political uncertainty.[10] These fears are clearly evoked in Nelly’s speculations; she tells Heathcliff that he is ‘fit for a prince in disguise. Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ (p.40). At the time of Wuthering Heights’ publication in 1847, both India and China proved to be countries fraught with colonial uncertainty. Although the British empire had almost entirely established political control in India, English rule in China had been marred by the effects of the Opium wars. The subsequent decline in trade left England with far less confidence surrounding their ability to control and assimilate countries into their once burgeoning empire.[11] Through a collocation of Heathcliff with an ancestry closely tied to notions of colonial decline and uncertainty, Nelly’s narrative essentially gives voice to ‘prospect of an alliance’ between the two countries ‘and the possibility of their joint occupation of Britain.’ [12] In the suggestion of Heathcliff’s families purported wealth, which would ultimately give him the ability to buy up both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights for as little as ‘one weeks income’ (p.40), Brontë highlights the possibility of the conqueror becoming the conquered by countries before considered colonially inferior.

These economic fears appear to be realised on Heathcliff’s return, who subsequently subverts and monopolises the imperial gaze that once consigned him to racial inferiority. In his power over both the Linton and Earnshaw families, Heathcliff seemingly confirms Nelly’s conjectured anxieties. Revelling in his new position of economic power, Heathcliff enacts his revenge on his ‘colonisers’ and invokes a course of reverse imperialism. Through this reversal, Heathcliff’s position as racial ‘other’ provides him with the liminality to rise above and conquer those once considered his colonial superiors. This inversion is not only demonstrated through his economic ruining of Hindley and the stripping of Linton’s family home, but also in Heathcliff’s horrific oppression of Isabella Linton. Isabella, once superior to Heathcliff, finds herself subjected to a radical class inversion in the hands of her captor/husband. Isabella, who once looked from a position of social superiority on the man who looked ‘exactly like the son of the fortune-teller’ (p.34), finds herself oppressed by the same colonising gaze that she once deployed to belittle her husband. As Isabella is subjected to Heathcliff’s gaze, Brontë describes Heathcliff as looking upon her ‘as one might do at a strange repulsive animal: a centipede from the Indies, for instance’ (p.76). This results in Isabella turning ‘white and red in rapid succession’ and using ‘her nails’ to free herself from Cathy’s grip (p.77). Isabella, reduced under the imperial gaze inflicted upon her, becomes a figure collocated with animalism. She is not only colluded in the passage with both a ‘centipede’ (p.76), but is also denounced as a ‘tigress’ (p.77) by Cathy for her animalistic clawing of her arm in an attempt to escape Heathcliff’s gaze. Paralleled thus with the wildlife abundant in the West Indies Isabella finds herself, in the same way as her husband, ‘pronounced upon as if [s]he were a specimen of some strange animal species’.[13] Through this reduction, Heathcliff’s monopolisation of the imperial gaze is complete; his ability to wield this gaze, coupled with the class liminality provided to him through his ambiguous racial ancestry, subsequently allows him to enact his legal domination over the colonially superior figures that become the embodiment of the British Empire in the narrative.

As Meyer thus comes to argue, ‘the “vivid and fearful” scenes in Wuthering Heights, of which Charlotte Brontë complained, are primarily scenes in which the ugliness of starkly wielded colonial power, usually exercised in areas remote from the reach of British law or putative moral standards, is enacted through Heathcliff’s fearful reversals.’[14] It is in this way that the novel proved so horrifying to its Victorian readership; Heathcliff’s enactment of ‘fearful reversions’, as well as his meteoric rise, threaten the imperial superiority engrained in the social and moral values of the British Empire. However, Meyer further suggests that this threat is felt most sharply through the location of Heathcliff’s reversions being in England.

Featured Image
–  Illustration by Fritz Eichenberg, as taken from the 1943 Random House edition of Wuthering Heights. See Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; London: Random House, 1943).

[1] Stephen D. Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation’ in Dracula: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Glennis Byron (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1999), pp.119-145, p.121.

[2] The term ‘imperial Gothic’ was first introduced by Patrick Bratlinger. For more background information on the term, see Patrick Bratlinger, ‘Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880- 1914’ in Reading Fin de Siècle Fictions, ed. Lyn Pykett (London: Longman, 1996), pp.184-210.

[3] Susan Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.100.

[4] For more information, see Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York City: D. Appleton and Company, 1895).

[5] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2000), p.25. All further references to Brontë s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically.

[6] Throughout the novel, Brontë continually deploys light imagery to contrast the racial ambiguity of Heathcliff with the purity of the middle-class Earnshaw and Linton families. The use of dirt and mud is once again evoked at the start of Chapter 7 on the return of Cathy to Wuthering Heights. Cathy’s passage from ‘savage’ (p.36) to gentrified is starkly contrasted with Heathcliff, who is described as having ‘thick uncombed hair’, ‘clothes […] which had seen three months’ service in mire and dust’, and a ‘beclouded’ visage (p.37).

[7] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gibberish [Accessed 17/03/2018]

[8] In postcolonial theory, the imperial gaze is often defined by the observed finding themselves defined in terms of colonially superiors own set of social systems and moral values. From this perspective, the imperial gaze thus infantilizes the object of the scrutiny whilst simultaneously denouncing the observed as racially and socially inferior. This is the concept of the imperial gaze, as first introduced and subsequently developed by E. Ann Kaplan, that this blog post will focus on and expand in relation to the supposedly racial inferior monopolising this gaze to enact discourses of reverse imperialism. For more information on the imperial gaze, see E. Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism and the Imperial Gaze (London: Routledge, 2012).

[9] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.97.

[10] Not only is Heathcliff associated with India and China in the novel, but also with the American Civil War. As Lockwood conjectures of Heathcliff’s meteoric rise in fortune, did ‘he earn honours by drawing blood from his foster country [?]’ (p.67). This, as Susan Meyer contends, further places Heathcliff into a discourse of ‘successful colonial rebellion’. For more information, see Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[11] For more information, see Ross G. Forman, China and the Victorian Imagination: Empires Entwined (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[12] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[13] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[14] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.118.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Robin Hood ballads: Regurgitating Traditional Tropes or Deeply Influenced by Historical Context?

‘Not a Frenchman will I spare
Not a Frenchman will he spare.’
– ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, ll.104-108

Although Stephen Knight and  Thomas H. Ohlgren point out that the tropes, the ‘augmentation of the outlaw band’ and ‘Robin Hood meets his match’ are prevalent in the Robin Hood tradition, certain late ballads are more influenced by their historical military context than any previous Robin Hood material in the tradition. (1) ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’ is shaped by the Anglo-French relations of the seventeenth century and ‘Robin Hood Prince of Aragon’ reflects the powerful threat of the Ottoman Empire.

Joseph Ritson recognises that the ‘most surviving common broad-sheet ballads were printed between the Restoration of 1660 and the Revolution of 1688’. (2) The relationship between France and England throughout the whole of the seventeenth century is characterised by war and military conflict, but it is most aggressive during, and shortly after the time Ritson refers to. The Anglo-French war of 1627-29 was sparked by the French refusal to ally with England against the Habsburg Spain and Austria. In the second Anglo-Dutch war (1665-1667), the French allied with the English enemy. (3) Similarly, the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-97) brought William III to the throne and therefore caused England’s alliance with the Dutch against the forces of Louis XIV. (4) This Anglo-French rivalry is undoubtedly articulated in the late Robin Hood ballad ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’. Stephen Pincus notes that ‘[t]he streets of London and provincial towns were littered with pamphlets, broadsides and poems offering glosses on witticisms about the most recent doings of European dignitaries.’ (5) This confirms that this ballad could be a form of political propaganda. In it, the enemy is politicised. Robin Hood states, ‘not a Frenchman I will spare’ (6) and the narrator repeats, ‘not a Frenchman he would spare’ (l.108). Although ‘Frenchman’ is in the singular, it is symbolic of the entire nation which, is confirmed through the celebration of the violence in the ballad. The narrator repeats how Robin took his ‘noble bow’ (l.125). Despite the fact that the ballad comes after Munday’s gentrified version of Robin Hood, the adjective ‘noble’ is not connected with Robin, but with his weapon, and therefore with the violence. The bow is no longer being used for sport and archery competitions as it is in the early ballads, but is turned into a war weapon. The narrative of the ballad is celebrating the violence because of the political nature of the enemy which adds something new to the larger tradition, and shows its contextual influences. (7)

This celebration of violence in the ballad coincides with the negative portrayal of the French enemy. The fishermen were ‘awar of a French robber/Coming toward them most desperately’ (ll.79-80). This description, with the reference to robbery and the adverb ‘desperately’, suggests French greed and links with the absence of the fish in sea; Robin, disguised as Symon ‘neither gott great nor smaw’ (l.52). This lack of fish metaphorically suggests an impending French threat to goods on English soil as well as in the sea. This threat is confirmed towards the end of the ballad when Symon ‘found within that ship of war/[t]welve hundred pounds in gold so bright’ (ll.163-164). Pincus writes that in the late seventeenth century there was a ‘well-known Francophobia of Londoners’ and this shows how the ballad is responding to this popular negative feeling towards France and its ruler Louis XIV, who emerged from the Second Dutch War as immensely powerful. (8) This French power is reflected in the contrast between the ‘fisher and the waryer free/[…] the noble ship’ (ll.158-159). The English ‘fisher’ is unlikely to defeat the ‘noble’ French ship and this unprecedented success, alongside the greedy portrayal of the French, shows the ballad to be acting as a form of political propaganda. The ballad portrays the French as an easy defeat whilst also encouraging hatred towards them. Although the date of the ballad is ambiguous, the violence within it confirms that the negative attitude towards the French is shaped by the contextual military conflict between England and France in the late seventeenth century.


By the late sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire had established a large area of territory. However, the seventeenth century marked a change for the Empire. Their focus was now to defend existing land and trade routes, rather than further expansion. (9) Historian Cathal Nolan states that ‘by 1650 […] the empire was one of the largest states in the world at 800,000 square miles and 20 million inhabitants’ and because of wars, such as the Austro-Ottoman War (1683-1689), ‘much of Europe came to view the Ottomans as a lasting and direct security threat where previously it had been a distant and unknown country’. (10) This threatening perception of the Ottoman Empire is articulated through the late Robin Hood ballad, ‘Robin Hood Prince of Aragon’. (11) This ballad is particularly concerned with a racial othering of the enemy. The ‘proud Prince of Aragon’ (l. 49) is joined by two giants ‘most horrid for to see’ (l.56). They have ‘grisly looks, and eyes like brands, […] with serpents hissing on their helms,/[i]nstead of feathered plume’ (ll.57-60). The description of their eyes ‘branding terror’ and the ‘serpents on their helms’ makes the giants explicitly monstrous and inhuman. This othering of the enemy is taken further through use of the conjunctive adverb ‘instead’ which allows the narrator to show what is perceived as normal. It is not until later in the ballad when Robin encounters the Prince of Aragon and calls him a ‘tyrant Turk’ (l.141) that the significance of this othering is revealed. The Turks of the Ottoman Empire and their impending threat is allegorically dramatized through the otherness of the giants. Like, ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, this ballad is responding to the English perception of a potential military threat. This time the threat is the Ottoman Empire, which still confirms the large influence of the historical context.

This ballad places a larger focus on the violence between Robin Hood and the enemy in comparison to ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’. This could contextually suggest that the Ottoman threat is stronger than the French threat. In terms of setting, the enemy is already on English soil, not out at sea. The Prince of Aragon commands ‘bring forth my bride, or London burns’ (l.127). The narrative of the enemy is engaging directly with the Great Fire of London of 1666. This not only shows how the ballad is responding to its context but also supports the idea that it is a form of political propaganda, encouraging a national wariness towards the Ottoman Empire. This threatening persona of the enemy is mostly articulated through the violence in the ballad. At the battle, Little John ‘clove the giant to the belt,/[a]nd cut in twain his heart’ (ll.175-176) and to the other giant Will Scadlock ‘with his faulchion he run through/ [a] deep and gashly wound’ (l.181-182). The violence, which structurally takes up a large section of the ballad, is littered with adjectives associated with aggression such as ‘hewd’ (l.155), ‘deep and gashly’ (l.182), and verbs such as ‘struck’ (l.158), ‘slain’ (l.160), and ‘clove’ (l.175). In ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, Robin uses his ‘noble bow’ and shoots the Frenchmen from afar whilst being ‘bound to the main mast tree’ (RHF, l.105). Here, the ‘noble bow’ is replaced with the ‘faulchion’ which in itself is symbolic for the greater intimacy of the battle because it means Robin and the enemy must fight closer together than with the use of a bow. This change in weaponry coincides with the greater focus upon the descriptions of the wounds – ‘blood sprang from every vain’ (l. 56) – and suggests the Ottoman threat to be greater than the French threat because the narrative is much more focused on the action. Despite the difference in the way that the threats are portrayed, these late ballads still show how the military context shapes their themes.

Featured Photo: Image from page 20 of ‘Robin Hood; a collection of ancient poems, songs, and ballads, not extant, relative to that celebrated English outlaw, to which are prefixed historical anecdotes of his life’, accessed from https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14766209342, [accessed on 29/11/18].

1)      Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren, ‘Later Ballads: Introduction’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/later-robin-hood-ballads-introduction> [Accessed 11/04/2017]

2)      Joseph Ritson, quoted in Rhymes of Robyn Hood by Richard Barrie Dobson and John Taylor (Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989), p. 51.

3)      Ronald H. Fritze and William B.  Robison, Historical Dictionary of Stuart England (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996), pp.203-204.

4)      John Childs, The Nine Years’ War and the British Army, 1688-1697: The Operations in the Low Countries, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), pp.21-25.

5)      Stephen C.A Pincus , ‘From Butterboxes to Wooden Shoes: The Shift in English Popular Sentiment from Anti-Dutch to Anti-French in the 1670s’ in The Historical Journal, Vol. 38, No. 2 (1995), pp. 333-361 (p.335).

6)      ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), l. 104 available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/gest-of-robyn-hode> [Accessed 28/02/2017]. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically within the body of the essay.

7)      In the medieval ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne’, the violence is casual; Robin kills Sir Guy and cuts him in the face in order to make it seem as though it is him who is dead. ‘Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/gest-of-robyn-hode> [Accessed 08/04/2017]. In Munday’s play The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon, the enemies are personal. Prince John is a rival for the love of Maid Marian. Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/downfall-of-robert-earle-of-huntington> [Accessed 08/04/2017].

8)      Stephen C. A. Pincus, Protestantism and Patriotism: Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy: 1650-1658, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 254.

9)      Cathal C. Nolan, Wars of the age of Louis XIV, 1650-1715: An Encyclopaedia of Global Warfare and Civilisation (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008), p. 344.  

10)  Nolan, Wars of the age of Louis XIV, 1650-1715, p. 344.

11)   ‘Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/robin-hood/text/child-ballad-129-robin-hood-and-the-prince-of-aragon> [Accessed 14/04/17]. All other references to this text are to this edition and are given parenthetically within the body of the essay.

Written by Estelle Luck.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Violating Power of the Colonizing Male Gaze in Isaac Teale’s The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies

In Isaac Teale’s 1765 narrative poem The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, the black female body is persistently violated by the white European gaze. This gaze not only strips the female slave of any autonomous power she possesses over her body, but also places her on a pedestal of racial typecasting. The imperial gaze of the white conqueror entraps and oppresses the female slave through enforced negative stereotypes; this is explicitly demonstrated through the comparison of the black slave with Botticelli’s Venus.1 Under this racial trope, depictions of the black female slave become synonymous with sexual lasciviousness and promiscuity. This troubling fusion is foregrounded in the very title of Teale’s work, which instantly seeks to displace and denounce the black female body as ‘Other’. As Regulus Allen expands, ‘Whether the

Botticelli's Venus
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484, Tempera on Canvas, 172cm x 278cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Black Venus stands for the beautiful or the bizarre’, ‘the figure always implies a ‘black’ or racialized female subject held up to European standards of beauty’ as ‘conveyed by the classical Roman goddess, Venus.’2 If, Allen further argues, the term Sable Venus is given as a compliment to the black African slave, the term still ‘presents an oxymoron’ as, ‘if a woman were truly a Venus, she would not require the qualifier’.3 This qualifier, introduced in the title through a collusion of ‘sable’, an adjectival term used to describe ‘blackness’, and Venus, the goddess of love, continues to permeate throughout the entirety of the text.4 As Teale describes, ‘the loveliest limbs her form [the Sable Venus] compose,/ such as her sister Venus chose’. The female slave is ‘just alike’ to Venus, ‘except the white,/ no difference, no- none at night.’5 Although the former lines suggest an innocent appreciation and admiration for the female slaves beauty, it is in the latter quote that the troubling discourse of colonial oppression becomes apparent. Whilst Botticelli’s Venus is synonymous with chastity and virginal beauty, Isaac Teale’s bawdy suggestion of the female slave having no difference to Venus at ‘night’ (l.89) adds, as Allen suggests, a qualifier that compounds and denounces the female slave as a sexual ‘Other’. Her desirability becomes quantified by her abundant lack of whiteness. This becomes the agency that is used by the white coloniser to violate and penetrate the sanctity of the black female body.

In this sense, Teale clearly attempts to rationalise his desire for the black female body through an alignment of the former with European standards of female beauty. However, his persistent use of qualifiers ultimately results in the gross sexualisation of the Sable Venus figure. This gross sexualisation is perhaps most clearly foregrounded historically through the exploitation of Sarah Bartmaan. Due to her large buttocks, Bartmaan was exhibited in freak show attractions across Europe in the early nineteenth-century under the stage name ‘Hottentot Venus’.

Sarah Baartman
‘Les Curiex en Extase ou les Cordons de Souliers et La Venue Hottentote‘, French cartoon, ca. 1814.

Her exaggerated sexual features, supposed signifiers of the African woman’s sexual lasciviousness, had an unquantifiable impact on the eroticisation of the black female body by white male colonisers.6 Exhibited throughout Europe in the same decade as Thomas Stothard’s painting was first published, it is not too far to conjecture the possible influence of Sarah Baatman’s gross eroticisation on Stothard’s sexualised depiction of Teale’s Sable Venus. Stothard’s Romanesque depiction of the Sable Venus further builds on the idea of a racialised female subject, holding the female slave’s beauty up to European standards of beauty.7

In Stothard’s painting, The Sable Venus is entirely eroticised, appearing almost entirely nude with only a small strip of fabric covering her genitals.8 Unlike the Florentine Venus the Sable Venus is far removed from innocence, making no effort to cover her modesty. She is essentially presented as an object of complete desire, a figure to be used and ravished by the white man. The painting acts as a projection of white European notions of mastery over the sexually-conquerable black female. As an obedient slave, the Sable Venus is portrayed as eternally consenting to the white European master’s surrounding her. However, as Rebecca Stott declares, this consensual passivity is little more than a creation of ‘[…] the imperial gaze, the gaze that delights in the passivity of its object.’9

Stothard Sable Venus
Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, c.1800, etching with engraving (as copied by William Grainger from Thomas Stothard’s 1793 painting), 20.3cm x 16.4cm, National Maritime Museum, London.

Although depicted as holding the reins in the painting, suggesting that it is she that is orchestrating her own path across the middle passage, it becomes apparent that this suggestion of the Sable Venus’s autonomous power is fraudulent. Although Jenny Sharpe argues that the figure of the Sable Venus is ‘portrayed as a conqueror of the New World, and the white men as her sexual slaves’,10 this is clearly contradicted in the choice of accessories that adorn the Stothard’s Sable Venus. The trinkets that ornament her wrists and ankles are essentially little more than a nuanced representation of shackles. Although suggested in the painting to be little more than embellishments of beauty, the Sable Venus’s supposed mastery over the surrounding white men is undermined by this blatant allusion to enslavement. The image thus becomes a master narrative, projecting white notions of superiority over the conquered African slave.

At least superficially, then, Teale’s poem appears to present the Sable Venus as a figure that holds and monopolises the male colonising gaze, as well as the devotion of the white man. However, when placed in conjunction with Stothard’s painting, this is demonstrated to be little more than a superficial attempt to mask the underlying discourse of sexual assault and rape that pervades the poem. From the ode’s very beginning, it is detailed that ‘the ladies look’d extremely shy’ whilst ‘Apollo’s smile was arch and sly’ (ll.13-14). Apollo’s smile proves particularly sinister in relation to the shy gazes of the young women. Etymologically, ‘sly’ is defined as ‘having or showing a cunning and deceitful nature’;11 therefore, although superficially portraying a consensual union between Apollo and the young women, on further analysis this is proven to be false. The term comes to be synonymous with the poem itself; Teale’s narrative acts slyly, masking through deceit a violent discourse of slave rape and violation. The language of the poem becomes as deceitful as Apollo’s smile, a notion that is further demonstrated in the description of the Sable Venus’s arrival at port. ‘When her step had touch’d the strand’, Teale describes that ‘wild rapture seiz’d the ravish’d land’ (ll.115-116). In the former quote, a clear semantic field of violence comes to the forefront. Despite Teale’s constant reassurances of the Sable Venuses ‘kind and consenting eyes’ (l.103), the archaic use of ‘ravish’d’ is suggestive of rape, as well as the act of seizing by force. 12 The men are further suggested to be driven ‘wild’ by her arrival; their desire for the sexualised Sable Venus borders on primitivity and violence. It is in these semantic choices, that the underlying discourse of sexual abuse is foregrounded. As Allen writes on the contradictory nature of Teale’s language choice, ‘the ode’s language […] conveys the idea of ecstatic joy but also denotes the acts of abduction and rape. What would seem an acknowledgement of […]the violation of the black women’ ‘is inverted into the Sable Venus’s conquest of European men’.13 In this sense, Teale attempts to mask the violation of the black female slave under subversion and deceit. By subverting notions of male domination, as demonstrated in the positioning of the Sable Venus’s superiority over the white colonizing male, Teale attempts to mask the violation of the sanctified body under a façade of female authority.


Featured Illustration: Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, c.1800, etching with engraving (as copied by William Grainger from Thomas Stothard’s 1793 painting), 20.3cm x 16.4cm, National Maritime Museum, London.

1. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484, Tempera on Canvas, 172cm x 278cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

2. Regulus Allen, ‘“The Sable Venus” and Desire for the Undesirable’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 51 (2011), 667-691, p.670.

3. Allen, ‘The Sable Venus’ and Desire for the Undesirable’, p.670.

4. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sable [Accessed 14/12/2017]

5. Isaac Teale, ‘The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies (1765)’ in The Poetry of Slavery: An Anglo-American Anthology, 1764-1865, ed. Marcus Wood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp.30-35, (p.33), ll.85-89. All further references to Teale’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.

6. See Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

7. Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, c.1800, etching with engraving (as copied by William Grainger from Thomas Stothard’s 1793 painting), 20.3cm x 16.4cm, National Maritime Museum, London.

8. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484, Tempera on Canvas, 172cm x 278cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

9. Rebecca Stott, The Fabrication of the Late Victorian Femme Fatale: The Kiss of Death (Macmillan Press LTD: London, 1992), p.98.

10. Jenny Sharpe, Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p.49

11. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sly [Accessed 02/12/2017]

12. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ravish [Accessed 07/12/2017]

13. Allen, ‘The Sable Venus’ and Desire for the Undesirable’, pp.675-676.

Written by Steph Reeves
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