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
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’.
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
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
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.