“The first time Saartjie Baartman was dragged out to squat before the mob at 225 Piccadilly, the show’s promoters billed her genitals as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey’s throat. For several years, working-class Londoners crowded in to shout vulgarities at the protruding buttocks and large vulva of the unfortunate woman made famous across Europe as the “Hottentot Venus”. The aristocracy were no less fascinated at what they saw as a sexual freak, but they had private showings. Death in Paris a few years later treated the young woman from South Africa’s Eastern Cape little better than life. She was carved up by Napoleon’s surgeon, who made a cast of her body, pickled her genitals and brain, and put her skeleton on display in a museum.”
Chris McGreal, “Coming Home”, The Guardian (UK), 21/02/2002
The story of Sarah Baartman, The Hottentot Venus, concerns the ritual humiliation and violation of a young African woman who was abducted to Europe in 1809 and subjected to vile humiliations and brutality.
For 5 years she was paraded semi-naked across Europe as a sexual freak known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’. She became an icon racial inferiority and black female sexuality. Her large buttocks (steatopygia), a feature of her people, was of particular fascination to European spectators. She was made to display her naked buttocks and vagina to the mobs, ostensibly to demonstrate their “excessive size”. [cite]
She became the focus of both research by contemporary racial scientists (who sought to use her as “proof” of the inferiority of the African “race”) and the Abolitionist movement, who saw her treatment as a graphic example of the inhumanity and brutality meted out to slaves and other ‘inferior’ people both in Europe and abroad.
[ This French print entitled “La Belle Hottentot” illustrates the sensation generated by the spectacle of “The Hottentot Venus” ]
Sarah died alone in 1815 at the age of 25, her final living humiliation being invasively examined by a team of ‘scientists’ for three days. [cite]
Immediately after her death she was autopsied by French anatomist Baron Cuvier(1769 -1832) who “had her body cast in wax, dissected and her skeleton articulated. Her genitalia and brain were preserved, and displayed at the Museum of Mankind in Paris until as recently as 1974.” [cite]
According Lola Young, writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, in the 5 years Sarah was in Europe “she was written about, drawn in cartoons, became the subject of a play, was referred to in a court case and the House of Commons – and yet hardly anyone today knows about her significance in 19th- century abolitionist struggles or in the development of “scientific” racism.” [cite]
To this day few Europeans have even heard of her.
Sarah’s remains were returned to South Africa from France in May 2002. She is to be buried in Hankey, near the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape, South Africa on the 9th August 2002. A memorial in her honour is to be built near the South African Parliament in the near future.
For more information see:
[The following links found via “The Monstrous Feminine in Literature and Art“]
Sara’s Story – a highly recommended introduction.
Coming Home – another excellent introduction this time from The Guardian.
Image of the Black Female in Western Art – A fascinating exhibit from Newcastle University in Australia.
The Life and Times of Sara Baartman – “The Hottentot Venus” a review of the critically acclaimed film by Zola Maseko
The Seductive Temptress: The Hottentot Venus
World Archaeological Congress on the Repatriation of the remains of Sarah Baartman
Sarah Baartman to Be Buried in Eastern Cape – All Africa.com
The Return of the Hottentot Venus – Africana.com
Fetching Saartjie – All Africa.com
Return of ‘Hottentot Venus’ unites Bushmen – BBC Online
‘Hottentot Venus’ goes home – BBC Online
‘Hottentot Venus’ burial wrangle laid to rest – Independent Online (SA
Khoi bodies litter SA’s museums – Sunday Times (SA
Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business
A sculpture of Sarah by Willie Bester, a South African artist [image][story]