Sarah Baartman: The Hottentot Venus
Saartje Baartman was born in 1789 in the Eastern Cape of present-day South Africa. A biography at Black History Papers describes her as “a member of the Khoisan group, the original inhabitants of southern Africa. The Khoisan, pejoratively referred to as the Hottentots, are honey-coloured and steatopygic - that is, fat is stored in their buttocks. Europeans viewed the latter feature to be an abnormality and an attestation of racial inferiority.”
A Hard Life
Sarah’s mother died when she was just two years old and her father died when she was an adolescent.
In her teens, a Dutch colonist forced her into domestic service after he killed her partner. She had already had a baby that had died.
Lucille Davie writes (SouthAfrica.info) that in 1810 Sarah “was ‘discovered’ by British ship’s doctor William Dunlop, who persuaded her to travel with him to England.”
However, other sources say she was taken to Europe by the family who enslaved her.
In addition to her protuberant rear end, Sarah had exceptionally large genitals, features which persuaded the good doctor he could make a fortune trotting her around the British capital as an exhibition.
Rachel Holmes, author of a 2007 biography of Sarah, says “You have to remember that, at the time, it was highly fashionable and desirable for women to have large bottoms, so lots of people envied what she had naturally, without having to accentuate her figure.”
The Hottentot Venus Goes on Display
According to the BBC, Dr. Dunlop persuaded her that she was the one who was going to make “a fortune by allowing foreigners to look at her body.”
She was billed as “The Hottentot Venus” and she “became a freak-show attraction investigated by supposed scientists and put under the voyeuristic eye of the general public.
“She was forced to show off her large buttocks and her outsized genitalia at circus sideshows, museums, bars, and universities.”
Black History Papers adds “The shows involved Saartje being ‘led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand, or sit as ordered.’ ”
She wore a skin-tight, flesh-coloured garment that preserved a little bit of dignity. Usually, she also smoked a pipe during her “performances.”
Wealthy people paid for private showings of this demeaning spectacle in their own homes where they were allowed to touch her.
Baartman Used to Prove European Superiority
Aside from the carnival displays Sarah Baartman was used by pseudo-science to “prove” the superiority of the European race by showing, as Lucille Davie puts it “that others, particularly blacks, were inferior and oversexed.
“Baartman’s physical characteristics, not unusual for Khoisan women, although her features were larger than normal, were ‘evidence’ of this prejudice, and she was treated like a freak exhibit in London.”
This demeaning view was used to justify the mistreatment of people of African heritage.
Now, of course, it's debatable which was the more primitive culture.
Abolitionists Campaign for Sarah
Slavery ended in England in 1807, although it was still practiced in many other parts of the world, so the abolitionist movement continued to be very active.
Anti-slavery campaigners took Sarah’s handlers to court in an effort to shut down the circus freak show. But, she testified in favour of the exhibitors, which suggests she was a willing participant in the display. Or perhaps, she was coerced into giving false testimony. We will never know.
A group called the African Association called for the degrading exhibitions to end and for Sarah to be released. To her “owners” she was now becoming more trouble than she was worth and she was sold to an animal trainer in France named Reaux.
In Paris, writes Marisa Meltzer she “developed an addiction to alcohol, and, at some point, became a prostitute. She died in Paris of either a respiratory disease or syphilis - the records aren’t clear - at the age of 26.”
But, even in death, the indignities continued. A cast was made of her body and her skeleton went on display at the Museum of Natural History until 1976. And, writes Meltzer, “Her brain and genitals were kept in bell jars just outside one creepy scientist’s private chambers.”
Campaign to Bring Sarah Baartman Home
Chris McGreal, writing for The Guardian (February, 2002) says Sarah Baartman was “largely forgotten until interest in her fate revived with the end of apartheid in South Africa and the Khoisan peoples attempts to reassert their identity.”
In 1994, South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela joined a campaign to bring her home and asked his French counterpart François Mitterand to release her remains. After years of stonewalling, Sarah Baartman was returned to her homeland and buried on South Africa’s Women’s Day, August 9, 2002, in the area of her birth, the Gamtoos River Valley in the Eastern Cape.
At the burial, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki said “The story of Sarah Baartman is the story of the African people.
“It is the story of the loss of our ancient freedom ... It is the story of our reduction to the state of objects who could be owned, used, and discarded by others.”
A bit of a flap erupted in January 2016 when word got out that Beyoncé was planning on writing and starring in a movie about Sarah Baartman. The rumour sparked fury in South Africa over the issues of cultural appropriation and exploitation. Beyoncé’s publicists immediately denied the singer had anything to do with the project.
Sarah Baartman’s arrival in Britain came at a time when Lord Grenville was leader of the Whigs. His lordship was noted for his capacious rear end and, because of this, he and his followers were known as the “broad bottoms.” This was a magnificent gift to the political cartoonists of the day.
- “Sarah Baartman, at Rest at Last,” SouthAfrica.info, August 12, 2002.
- “ ‘Hottentot Venus’ Laid to Rest.” BBC News, August 9, 2002.
- “Venus Abused,” Salon, January 9, 2007.
- “The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman (Born 1789 - Buried 2002).” Rachel Holmes, Bloomsbury Pub Ltd (1656), 2007.
- “The Significance of Sarah Baartman.” Justin Parkinson, BBC News Magazine, January 7, 2016.
- “Saartje (Sara) Baartman.” Black History Pages, undated.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor