Women at Sea pp 135-160 | Cite as

Women Adrift

Madwomen, Matriarchs, and the Caribbean
  • Ivette Romero-Cesareo


Travel is an enterprise requiring a certain degree of camouflage. Travelers prepare for their encounters and negotiations with other social settings, languages, and physical surroundings, by donning protective lotions and garb, in an attempt to erase or accentuate the distance between Self and Other.2 For women traveling through the Caribbean, this enterprise becomes a complex act, necessitating pretexts, smoke screens, and masks. The discourse of travel, then, whether written or spoken by/about mobile women, is difficult to control and categorize because of the diversity of voices, each imbued with varying strategies and intentions. When writing focuses on singular women travelers—the Nun of Alferez (Catalina de Erauso), pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Josephine and Pauline Bonaparte (wife and sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, respectively), or Adèle Hugo (daughter of Victor Hugo)—each remarkable in her own way—the multiplicity of accounts and interpretations of their trajectories is astoundingly heterogeneous, rendering them legendary as much by hyperbolic renditions as by the impossibility of knowing which of the versions best reflects the circulating bodies behind the texts. These subjects of travel are made to clash with or conform to moral and aesthetic parameters, first provoking titillation, then reassuring that social order has been restored.


Nova Scotia Marriage Contract Dark Complexion Gold Prospector English Soldier 
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  1. 1.
    Frances V. Guille. Le Journal d’Adèle Hugo. Vol. I (Paris: Minard, 1968), 343. Subsequent page references will appear in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Writing about her life in Antigua and St. Kitts in 1774 and 1776, Janet Schaw proudly proclaims: “As to your humble Servant, I have always set my face to the weather; wherever I have been. I hope you have no quarrel at brown beauty.” Journal of a Lady of Quality; Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal in the Years 1774 to 1776. Edited by Evangeline Walker Andrews and Charles McLean Andrews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934), 115. Such a statement is paradoxical, coming from an apologist for eighteenth-century slavery and plantation life; it indicates a desire to set herself apart from other European female counterparts, who strove to maintain their rosy cheeks and pale complexions, while closing the distance between herself and the dark-skinned people she believed had no human emotions and were born to bear pain. For an in-depth study of these contradictions, see Elizabeth A. Bowles, “Janet Schaw and the Aesthetics of Colonialism.” In Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics: 1716–1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    I discuss notions of hybridity and contradictory discursive stances in “Travelers Possessed: Generic Hybrids and the Caribbean,” forthcoming in Anthropology and Literature: Estranged Bedfellows? Edited by Rose DeAngelis (London and Newark: Gordon and Breach, 2000).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Mary Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Mary Seacole in Many Lands (London: James Blackwood, 1857).Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Quoted in Hubert Juin’s Victor Hugo: 1870–1885. Vol. III (France: Flammarion, 1986), 127.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Alexis Sawyer, in Sawyer’s Culinary Campaign (London: Routledge, 1857), describes a light-skinned young woman, Sarah, whom he believes to be Mary Seacole’s daughter. On the one hand, he opposes her “whiteness” to Seacole’s dark complexion—“an old dame of a jovial appearance, but a few shades darker than the white lily”; “La Mère Noire, although she has a fair daughter”—and, on the other, she emphasizes her “exotic” black-haired, blue-eyed beauty by calling her “the dark Maid of the Eastern War” and “the Egyptian beauty.” See the Editor’s introduction to Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures (43).Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    See Patricia Hill Collins’s “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images.” In Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1990).Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    See Ferdinand Denis’s Les Vrais Robinsons: naufrages, solitudes, voyages (Paris: Librairie du Magasin Pittoresque, 1863). Quoted in Richard Cortambert’s Les Illustres Voyageuses (Paris: E. Maillet, 1866).Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    This segment of Adèle Hugo’s manuscript is quoted in Frances V. Guille’s Le Journal d’Adèle Hugo. Vol. I (Paris: Minard, 1968), 70.Google Scholar
  10. 16.
    François Truffaut, The Story of Adèle H. Translated by Jan Dowson (New York: Grove Press, 1976). This is the script of the film of the same title, directed in 1975 by Truffaut and starring Isabelle Adjani in the title role.Google Scholar
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    Auguste Joyau, Héroïnes et aventurières de la mer Caraïbe (Fort-de-France: Editions des Horizons Caraïbes, 1959).Google Scholar
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    Henri Guillemin. L’Engloutie: Adèle, fille de Victor Hugo: 1830–1915 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1985).Google Scholar
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    Leslie Smith Dow, Adèle Hugo: La Misérable (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1993). Subsequent page references will appear in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar
  14. 26.
    A higgler, from the word “haggler,” is a traveling salesperson who buys merchandise available in one region to sell in another region where these goods are not easily accessible.Google Scholar
  15. 36.
    We must observe the nineteenth-century usage of the word “checkered” in other contexts and in view of Seacole’s systematic critique of North American slavery. Her wit and awareness of the power of language and its signifies are evidenced by the following quote from an abolitionist’s letter attesting to the horrors of slavery: “I beg in reply to state that the whole of the back part of her [Mary Prince’s] body is distinctively scarred and, as it were, checkered with the vestiges of severe floggings.” See Moira Ferguson’s introduction to The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself (London: Pandora, 1987), 138.Google Scholar
  16. 39.
    Mary Carmichael, Domestic Manners and Social Conditions of the White, Colored, and Negro Population of the West Indies. 2 Vols. (London: Whittaker, 1833).Google Scholar

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© Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Ivette Romero-Cesareo 2001

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  • Ivette Romero-Cesareo

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