The Hottentot Venus


(1789 - 1816)






La «Vénus hottentote» de retour au pays?

Par Vincent NOCE

Le jeudi 17 janvier 2002

Un sénateur d'Ile-de-France, Nicolas About, suscite un certain embarras à Matignon, avec sa proposition de loi qui vise à restituer la Vénus hottentote à l'Afrique du Sud. Fille de berger, née en 1789, Satchwe avait été emmenée par un Néerlandais à Londres, où elle fut rebaptisée Sarah Baartman. Les Européens s'étonnèrent de ses formes callipyges, qui lui valurent le sobriquet de «Vénus hottentote». Elle vécut un enfer, exhibée comme une bête de foire et livrée à la prostitution, jusqu'à sa mort, à Paris, en 1815, où elle fut disséquée par Cuvier. Son squelette, ses organes ainsi qu'un moulage de son corps se trouvent au musée de l'Homme, qui les exposaient encore il y a vingt-cinq ans. Ils sont revendiqués par l'Afrique du Sud. «La France s'honorerait de lui rendre sa dignité, deux siècles après sa mort», estime le sénateur.



 Diana Ferrus, A poem for Sarah Baartman

Sara’s story, a symbol of subjugation and humiliation, her homecoming will be a spiritual thing

Sara is the short-name used these days for Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan slave woman who at the tender age of 20 was taken from Cape Town to London and then on to Paris to be displayed naked in their streets and at their circuses like an animal her European audiences viewed her to be. Her story is a tearful and moving one. It is at once the story of an everyday woman, a human being, one of us, treated in the most grotesque ways, used as "scientific proof" of "European white superiority," But it is also a story about the more widespread "social, political, scientific and philosophical assumptions which transformed one young African woman into a representation of savage sexuality and racial inferiority." Finally, her story is one that provokes us to look in some detail at the power of imagery to form opinions, and the way such power has been employed to depict people of color, especially women of color.

February 27, 2002

The Miami Herald on February 24 carried a story about a South African woman named Saartjie Baartman that attracted our attention, and, we have learned, has had the attention of many for some period of time.

Before getting into the story, we’d like to highlight what we think is the key issue here, the image of the black person, in this case a woman, in Western art. This is tied into the more macro issue of the way blacks have been portrayed as racially inferior and more specifically, the way black female sexuality has been portrayed as inferior. Those times are changing, but Saartjie's story is worth knowing about, because her story says a great deal about history, recent history at that.

Who is Saartjie Baartman?

She was born on the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape in 1789 of a Khoisan family in what is now South Africa. The Khoisans are among southern Africa’s oldest known inhabitants, people who made a major role in shaping South Africa’s past and present. But back in those days, bands of Dutch raiding parties went on horseback to the eastern and northern Cape frontiers to hunt down and exterminate these "bushmen" groups who were considered cattle thieves and a threat to settler society.

Canadian socio-linguist Nigel Crawhall, speaking of the Khoisan people, says this:

"These people moved across this land before any other human being. It was they who named the plants and the trees and the features of this land. . . . There [has been an] explosion of identity . . . [among] people who had spent their whole lives having to hide who they were. These people had been destroyed and now suddenly there [is] light and air."

There was never any light and air for Saartjie. In her late teens, she migrated to Cape Flats near Cape Town where she became a farmer’s slave and lived in a small shack until 1810. That year, she was sold in Cape Town in 1810 at the age of 20 to a British ship’s doctor, William Dunlop, who persuaded her that she could make a great deal of money by displaying her body to Europeans. Dunlop put her on a boat and she ended up in London.

There she was put on display in a building in Picadilly and paraded around naked in circuses, museums, bars and universities. She was most often obliged to walk, stand or sit as her keeper ordered, and told to show off her protruding posterior, an anatomical feature of her semi-nomadic people, and her large genitals, which varied in their appearance from those of Europeans.

Khoisan people anatomically have honey-colored skin and stock their body fats in the buttocks rather than in the thighs and belly. These are natural things for them, but Europeans found them to provide an excuse for stereotyping African blacks in grotesque ways. For example, the British described her genitals as like an apron, "skin that hangs from a turkey’s throat."

Contemporary descriptions of her shows at 225 Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket in London say Baartman was made to parade naked along a "stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered".

There were protests in London for the way Baartman was being treated. The exhibitions took place at a time when the anti- slavery debate was raging in England and Baartman's plight attracted the attention of a young Jamaican, Robert Wedderburn, shown in this portrait, who founded the African Association to campaign against racism in England, and wrote of the horrors of slavery. Wedderburn is himself an interesting black British radical. He was arrested twice in the early 1800s, once for Sedition  for defending a slaves rights to rise up and kill his master, and then a second time for sending among the first  revolutionary papers from England to the west Indies.  For that, was found guilty of "Blasphemous libel" and served two years in Carlisle jail. He subsequently was released wrote and released his autobiography entitled, The Horrors of Slavery.

Under pressure from his group, the attorney general asked the government to put an end to the circus, saying Baartman was not a free participant. A London court, however, found that Baartman had entered into a contract with Dunlop, although historian Percival Kirby, who has discovered records of the woman's life in exile, believes she never saw the document.

After four years in London, Sara was handed to a showman of wild animals in Paris, where she was displayed between 1814 and 1815 in a traveling circus, often handled by an animal trainer.

French Research Minister Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg told the French Senate recently that she was also exhibited before "sages and painters," including George Cuvier, surgeon general to Napoleon Bonaparte, and seen by many as the founder of comparative anatomy in France.

Cuvier, shown here, described Baartman’s movements as having "something brusque and capricious about them that recalled those of monkeys." Cuvier used such descriptions to demonstrate the superiority of the European races. Several "scientific" papers were written about Baartman, using her as proof of the superiority of the white race.

Jeremy Nathan, a South African film producer who is making a feature film on the life of Baartman, says such women excited the attention of the Parisian intelligentsia at the time. Cuvier was at the center of an eminent school of social anthropologists who believed she was the missing link, the highest form of animal life and the lowest form of human life.

Her anatomy even inspired a comic opera in France. Called The Hottentot Venus or Hatred to French Women, the drama encapsulated the complex of racial prejudice and sexual fascination that occupied European perceptions of aboriginal people at the time

Sara Baartman died in Paris in 1816, an impoverished prostitute, a lonely woman, and an alcoholic. She had come to be known as the "Venus Hottentot," which was a derogatory term used to describe "bushmen" of southern Africa.

Instead of providing her a decent burial, Cuvier made a plaster cast of Baartman’s body, dissected her and conserved her organs, including her genitals and brain, in bottles of formaldehyde. Along with her skeleton, shown here, Sara Baartman’s brain and genitals were stored somewhere in a back room of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris Her remains including those in the jars were displayed there until 1976.

Saartjie Baartman has created controversy in South Africa as well. Willie Bester, a world known contemporary South African artist, made a metal sculpture of Saartjie Baartman.

Bester is shown in the next photo, and you can barely see an overhead image projection on the screen behind him of his sculpture of Sara. Bester's father was Khosian and his mother what has been called "Cape colored." He was himself classified as "other colored" during the apartheid years.

In Bester’s work apartheid has remained the dominant theme. In particular he has consistently tackled the Group Areas Act (the law that defined where people could and could not live according to their color); the militarized and violent character of South African life stemming from apartheid; and the role played by the Dutch Reformed Church in supporting the apartheid ideology.

Yet, his sculpture of Baartman created controversy, perhaps because it was displayed in the Science and Engineering Library at the University of Cape Town. A panel was convened to discuss the sculpture. Some felt it needed greater explanation to accompany it, to explain the oppression and injustices committed during the colonial era. Others complained that the science library was the wrong venue, because it was in the name of science that Baartman was paraded about Europe like an animal. There were also complaints that if art of indigenous peoples are to be displayed, they should be by indigenous people.

Here in the US, an African American woman, Deborah Willis, has written a recently published book that was motivated to a great degree by the tragedy of Saartjie Baartman. The book, entitled, The Black Female Body in Photography, focuses on the power of the photographic image to reflect and affect opinions. Willis, curator at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, commented on Baartman’s situation this way:

"The stereotypical caricatures of Baartman portrayed her as entertainment while also sexualizing her image. (Despite the negative and stereotypical nature of Baartman’s images) the bustle soon became very stylish in Europe and later in America, and this may have been the result of the popularity of her images,"

After reading about Baartman, Willis contacted Carla Williams, a longtime friend and fellow photographer, to discuss the possibility of a book on the black female body in photography.

Willis has noted that most images of black women produced in the decades after the Baartman images were exotic shots of African women in tribal attire or were of slaves working in the fields or taking care of white children and babies.

The latter images, according to Willis, provide a counterpoint to the earlier sexualized images of black women. "They were images of ‘neutered’ black females instead," Willis explains. These new images of slaves and "mammies" robbed black women of their femininity and portrayed them more as genderless workers.

A recent advertisement for Benetton, an international clothing store chain, featured a black woman with a white baby at her breast and was considered controversial when it debuted, Willis says. "But I loved the imagery, because it provided a counterpoint to that neutered black female aesthetic."

It is also worth noting that a new documentary film has been produced by Zola Maseko, who grew up in Swaziland, entitled, The Life and Times of Sara Baartman – "The Hottentot Venus". Using historical drawings, cartoons, legal documents, and interviews with noted cultural historians and anthropologists, The Life and Times of Sara Baartman - "The Hottentot Venus" deconstructs the social, political, scientific and philosophical assumptions which transformed one young African woman into a representation of savage sexuality and racial inferiority.

American Historical Review has said of the film:

"Zola Maseko's elegant and rather beautiful film recounts the life and times of Sara Baartman in clear and acceptable terms, using both contemporary and contemporaneous sources.... A telling and quite powerful film. It would be very appropriate for any class in the history of racism or colonial history. And just an hour long, it is perfect for a single classroom showing."

Le Monde has written:

"By combining the history and tragic destiny of Baartman, with the theories and racist imagination of the period... (Sara Baartman) presents an implacable plea against racism."

The film was rated the Best African Documentary, 1999 FESPACO African Film Festival, Ouagadougou Burkina Faso, and Best Documentary, 1999 Milan African Film Festival, Italy.

Commenting on the film and the life of Saartjie Baartman, now known to many as Sara, Alex Dodd says this:

"Part of the power of the documentary is that, as a viewer, you cease to think of history as words on a page or abstract theories. Despite the myriad discourses her tale has triggered, one cannot for a second escape the reality that Sara Baartman was a real human being with feelings. (The film) was Baartman’s life…an amazing story of one woman’s life."

South Africa, since it broke loose from the grip of apartheid, has been asking the French to send Sara home. Former President Nelson Mandela made that a personal project. He asked the late President François Mitterand for help in 1994, and two years later, South African Foreign Minister Nzo formally raised the issue yet again But no progress was made.

However, now the French Senate, in late January 2002, approved a bill proposing that Sara be returned home to South Africa. The lower house of the French parliament, the National Assembly, is expected to pass the law before the end of June.

For many South Africans, most especially for the Khoisan and a man named Boezak, a representative on the Khoisan legacy project of the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), Sara’s "sad story has become a symbol for us…of the subjugation and humiliation of Khoisan women through all the ages." He went on to say:

"(When) we celebrate her homecoming it will be a spiritual ceremony. It will be a reburial. It will not be a Cape Town thing, it will not be a Griqua thing, it will be a national thing


Bring back the Hottentot Venus


A Quena woman who was shown in Europe as a circus freak last century is to be the subject of a documentary reviving the memory of South Africa's aboriginal people, writes Eddie Koch

IN 1815 George Cuvier, surgeon general to Napoleon Bonaparte, was given the body of a Quena, or Hottentot, woman called Saartjie Baartman, who had died after living as a circus freak in England and France. The doctor made a plaster cast of the woman's corpse before he cut out her brains and genitals and preserved them in laboratory bottles.

Ten years ago these commodities were still on display at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris -- macabre icons of those "little people" who suffered the worst forms of ethnocide anywhere in the colonial period and who are today largely forgotten, even though their descendants fill the ranks of South Africa's rainbow nation.

Now a local researcher is spearheading a movement to return Baartman's remains so that the woman can be given the dignity that she was denied in her lifetime. The operation, dubbed "Bring Back the Hottentot Venus", is also designed to revive a popular memory of the aboriginal people who played a major role in shaping South Africa's past and present.

Saartjie Baartman's early life is unknown except that she came from a clan of Quena people, better known in South Africa by the derogatory term "Hottentot", in the Eastern Cape. Born in the late 18th century, probably in the 1780s, Baartman migrated to the Cape Flats, where the records show she was living in a small shack in 1810.

In that year she met a ship's doctor, William Dunlop, who persuaded her to travel to England with promises that she would make a fortune by exhibiting her body to Europeans. It appears that two settlers called Hendrik and Johan Cezar, probably themselves descendants of a mixed-race marriage between a Quena woman and a Dutchman, were instrumental in setting up the deal.

Baartman sailed with Dunlop to England, where she was put on display in a building in Piccadilly, exciting crowds of working-class Londoners who viewed her with a mixture of morbid curiosity and malice. Like all Quena woman, she had a protruding backside and large genital organs -- billed by the show's promoters as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey's throat.

Contemporary descriptions of her shows at 225 Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket in London say Baartman was made to parade naked along a "stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered".

The exhibitions took place at a time when the anti- slavery debate was raging in England and Baartman's plight attracted the attention of a young Jamaican, Robert Wedderburn, who founded the African Association to campaign against racism in England. Under pressure from this group, the attorney general asked the government to put an end to the circus, saying Baartman was not a free participant.

A London court, however, found that Baartman had entered into a contract with Dunlop, although historian Percival Kirby, who has discovered records of the woman's life in exile, believes she never saw the document.

In 1814, after spending four years being paraded around the streets of London, Baartman was taken to Paris and, according to the archival accounts, was handed to a "showman of wild animals" in a travelling circus. Her body was analysed by scientists, including Cuvier, while she was alive and a number of pseudo-scientific articles were written about her, testimony at the time to the superiority of the European races.

Jeremy Nathan, a South African film producer who is making a feature film on the life of Baartman, says the Quena women excited the attention of the Parisian intelligensia at the time. Cuvier, who was at the centre of an eminent school of social anthropologists, met her -- on display as a naked and exotic savage dressed only in feathers -- at a high-society ball organised by the Countess Du Barrie.

"This was the time of pre-Darwinist social anthropology and Cuvier believed she was the missing link, the highest form of animal life and the lowest form of human life," says Nathan.

Her anatomy even inspired a comic opera in France. Called The Hottentot Venus or Hatred to French Women, the drama encapsulated the complex of racial prejudice and sexual fascination that occupied European perceptions of aboriginal people at the time. It appears Baartman worked as a prostitute in Paris and drank heavily to cope with the humiliation she was subjected to.

She died in 1815 of an "inflammatory and eruptive sickness", possibly syphilis. Cuvier made a plaster cast of her corpse before dissecting it. He removed her skeleton and cut out her brain and genitals, which he pickled in bottles that were put on display at the Musee de l'Homme for more than 150 years. Her remains were removed from public exhibition 10 years ago but remain the property of the museum.

Researcher Mansell Upham now wants these remains to be returned to South Africa. "Hottentots are the most dehumanised people in colonial history. Even today the term is used to designate non-human status and Saartjie Baartman's remains are an icon of this history," says

Contemporary accounts describe how bands of Dutch raiding parties went on horseback to the eastern and northern Cape frontiers to hunt down and exterminate "bushmen" groups who were considered cattle thieves and a threat to settler society.

"Yet the Quena are the ancestors of a lot of people in this country, some of them marginal people out there who don't exist in the eyes of anybody. Bringing back her remains can help to address this and stimulate a debate about aboriginal groups -- like the "bushmen", Griquas and coloureds -- who have been neglected in reductionist black and white versions of our history."

Upham, who claims to be a direct descendant of Jan van Riebeeck's protege called Krotoa (better known in the history books as Eva), says Quena history has largely been ignored even though the so-called "Hottentots" were a founder population for many Afrikaners and the Cape coloured people.

Quena clans mixed extensively with Xhosa people, passing on the powerful clicks that distinguish the Nguni group of languages, and other Xhosa cultural features. This heritage, says Upham, is literally inscribed in the features of President Nelson Mandela, who more than likely has some "Hottentot" ancestry.

Canada, Australia and, to some extent, the United States have recently developed a historiography that details the experiences of aboriginal peoples in those countries. An awareness is growing worldwide of the plight of indigenous people -- groups who were resident in a country before it was colonised by aliens -- and is reflected in a United Nations decision to declare this the Decade of Indigenous People.

This consciousness appears, however, to be lacking in South Africa, where an overriding preoccupation with racial conflict between white settlers and African polities has overshadowed the role played by aboriginal groups in the country's history. Upham believes a campaign to "bring back Baartman" can help remedy the

"Our film will reconstruct the experiences and perceptions of this young woman," says Nathan. "It will show how the academic discourse that surrounded her contributed to popular European perceptions of race and helped to change the course of history."

Academic discussion and research into the plight of marginal groups is one thing, says Upham, important because they help generate wider public awareness of their human rights. Of greater concern, however, are indications that far-right groups are filling the gap left by the country's main political movements and gearing up to mobilise separatist support among the Griquas, coloureds and surviving "bushman" groups in South Africa.



The Return of the "Hottentot Venus"
By Marang Setshwaelo

Marang Setshwaelo is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa

It was surely a much longer sojourn abroad than she had bargained for, but almost 200 years after leaving South Africa, Sara Baartman is finally coming home. After eight years of pressure from the South African government, on January 29, the French Senate voted overwhelmingly to repatriate the remains of South Africa's most tragic exile, some 187 years after her death in Paris.

Baartman's tale throws uncomfortable issues of racism, sexism and colonialism into sharp relief. Originally from the Eastern Cape, Baartman, often affectionately known by the nickname "Saartjie," was a member of South Africa's indigenous first people, the Khoisan, who were pejoratively labeled "Hottentots" by European settlers. A slave in the Western Cape capital of Cape Town, Baartman was "discovered" by British Marine Sergeant William Dunlop, who persuaded her to return with him to England, where, he assured her, they would both make their fortunes. The source of the envisioned wealth was Baartman's body -- Dunlop told her that members of European high society would pay for a chance to gawk at her unusually (by European standards) large buttocks and genitals. The 20-year-old Baartman agreed, and the duo sailed to England in 1810, where the freak show began in earnest.

Billed as the "Hottentot Venus" and paraded naked before ogling audiences in London, Baartman was advertised as a biological oddity. The spectacle of her protruding buttocks fueled racialized conceptions of black sexuality and notions of white superiority. Baartman caught the attention of Jamaican anti-slavery activist Robert Wedderburn, who pressured the British attorney general to put an end to her humiliation. The campaign resulted in a court case, which ruled that Baartman had indeed entered a legitimate contract with Dunlop and that there was therefore no issue of exploitation since she had agreed to the conditions stipulated therein.

After four years in England, Baartman was moved to Paris, where she was exhibited by a French animal trainer as part of a travelling circus. Forced to participate in a soul-destroying round of peep shows, she was also subjected to a series of intrusive and degrading examinations by eminent French scientists of the day. In 1815, abandoned by the animal trainer once the sensation of the "Hottentot Venus" had lost its titillating thrill amongst polite Parisian society, Baartman was forced into prostitution to survive. She died at 25, an alcoholic and possibly suffering from syphilis and tuberculosis. Georges Cuvier, Napoleon Bonaparte's surgeon general, made a plaster cast of Baartman's body, preserved her genitals in formaldehyde, and handed her remains over to the Musée de l'Homme (Museum of Mankind), where they were displayed until 1976, when they were removed from public view.

Zola Maseko, co-producer and director of the award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Sara Baartman, is one of the few who managed to glimpse Baartman's remains after they were shelved in museum storage. The filmmaker first heard of Baartman in a university class in England. Intrigued, he investigated her story, and even visited the Musée de l'Homme twice, asking to see her remains. Both requests were denied, but he was finally granted permission when then South African Ambassador to France Barbara Masekela wrote him a letter of support while he was researching the documentary.

"It caused quite a commotion at the Musée," he remembers. "There were a lot of black people who worked there, some for as long as seven years, and they'd never seen Sara, so they all came out to see. She was wheeled out of the back room. They only let me see her skeleton and the plaster cast, claiming that the jar containing her genitals and brain had disappeared, so I'm interested to see what exactly they'll be repatriating."

His research afforded him access to the Musée's Professor André Langanuy, who admitted that French scientists of the era had used Baartman to reinforce notions of white supremacy.

"I found the admission that their findings were both racist and wrong to be quite powerful, especially coming from a scientist who worked at the Musée," Maseko says.

Beyond the immediate implications for South Africans, Maseko believes that Baartman's repatriation might also inspire a renewed battle by former colonies worldwide for the return of their ancestors and artifacts from western museums. "I'm watching these developments with interest, because there are still other human remains, in the United States and Canada, of Native American populations annihilated by colonizers that are still sitting in those museums, as well as artifacts and relics plundered from former colonies. I wonder if this will open the floodgates for their return."

Although there seemed little hope of seeing Sara repatriated while he was working on the documentary, Maseko never doubted she would return home one day.

"Look, I knew even then that this was not the end of the story," he reflects. "Sara's spirit and her soul continued to haunt us, to follow us, inspire us – she shouted for justice, and would not be ignored."

Indeed, Baartman's plight has long haunted and provided inspiration for artists in various media. And the campaign to repatriate her remains in part owes its success to a poem.

Diana Ferrus, a South African university administrator of Khoisan descent, wrote a poetic tribute to Baartman while studying in the Dutch city of Utrecht in 1998.

"I was doing a course that included a segment on sexuality in the colonies, so my mind went to Sara Baartman and how she was exploited," she explains. "But more than that, the really big thing was how acutely homesick I was. One evening I was looking at the stars and I thought to myself, 'They're so far away. But if I were home, I'd be able to touch every one of them.' My heart just went out to Sara, and I thought, 'Oh, God, she died of heartbreak, she longed for her country. What did she feel?' That's why the first line of the poem was 'I've come to take you home.'"

Ferrus's poem was later included on a website commemorating a South African poetry reading and art show in tribute to Baartman, and was stumbled on by Nicolas About, a French senator. About was so moved that he wrote to Ferrus informing her that he would take up the cause for Baartman's repatriation, and requesting permission to include a translated version of the poem in his petition to the French Senate. "They wanted to pass her off as something monstrous. But where in this affair is the true monstrosity?" he asked during the Senate hearing on the bill he sponsored to return Baartman to South Africa.

South Africa had first officially requested Baartman's return in 1994, when president Nelson Mandela brought the issue to the attention of French president Francois Mitterand when he made a state visit to South Africa. When the French failed to respond, various Khoisan groups began campaigning continuously for Baartman's return. In 2000, Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfred Nzo and Minister of Arts and Culture Ben Ngubane renewed the request from the South African government. While the Musée de l'Homme had asserted its ownership of the remains and cited the interests of "scientific research" in response to the South African demands, the passing of Senator About's bill should finally clear the way for Baartman's overdue homecoming, possibly as soon as June 2002.

For the Khoisan people, who have historically been politically marginalized in South Africa, the return of their ancestor is especially moving. The Khoisan have constantly fought for recognition as Southern Africa's "first people," and Baartman's return is an important landmark in their struggle.

"Sara became a national symbol of Khoisan people who have been humiliated and subjugated," explained Dr. Willa Boezak, a Khoisan rights activist. "A great historical wrong has been righted."

While conceding that South Africa still has a long way to go towards recognizing the Khoisan people's "first nation" status, Boezak pointed out that the South African government is the only African administration willing to negotiate with its indigenous people, and that Baartman's highly publicized return would strengthen the Khoisan's visibility.

"Sara will surely give impetus beyond belief to the Khoisan cause because of the media coverage and international interest in the story, so from that point of view, she's helping us along very nicely," he said.

To Boezak, the most intriguing aspect of Baartman's repatriation is what spurred Senator About into action: Diana Ferrus's poem. "Saartjie was stolen to Europe by unscrupulous men, and three prominent South African men [Mandela, Nzo and Ngubane] tried unsuccessfully to have her returned," he says. "It took the power of a woman, through a simple, loving poem, to move hard politicians into action. I find it so spiritual, so divine -- it's like God moving through history."

Ferrus shies away from taking any real credit for providing the impetus for Baartman's return, choosing instead to attribute it to the enduring power of non-violent protest.

"The Khoisan are a peace-loving people, who lost a lot because of their trusting and peace-loving nature," she says. "It didn't take a war to bring Saartjie back, just a simple poem. That's my testimony to the power of a peaceful solution. Wherever I read the poem, people really loved it, they felt so emotional about it, and I think that their love elevated the poem to fly to France and touch their hearts there, to bring Sara back home."

The Khoisan nation, represented by Griqua paramount chief A.A.S. le Fleur II, plan to bury Baartman's remains in the Cape Gardens, close to the Cape Town harbor where she embarked for Europe 187 years ago.

"Remember, Sara has never received a burial — stuck in jars and displayed for all those years, she was never truly laid to rest," Boezak says. "We want to do that for her in the place where we know she said her final farewells to her homeland."

First published: February 14, 2002



Victime de deux siècles de colonialisme, Saartje Baartman repose en paix

LE MONDE | 09.08.02 | 13h33

Johannesburg de notre correspondante

Les obsèques de Saartje "Sarah" Baartman auront attendu 186 ans. Vendredi 9 août, en présence de l'actuel et de l'ancien chef de l'Etat sud-africain, Thabo Mbeki et Nelson Mandela, sa dépouille mortelle, lavée avec du sang d'animaux et purifiée par le feu et l'eau, comme le veut la tradition, a été inhumée dans sa terre natale, dans la vallée de la Gamtoos, près du Cap. Il y a quelques mois encore, elle était stockée dans les caves du Musée de l'homme à Paris.

Née en 1789, Saartje Baartman était un "spécimen" des particularités morphologiques de son peuple, les Khoïsans, habitants originels de l'Afrique du Sud. La jeune fille avait un postérieur énorme et des organes génitaux protubérants. Un médecin de la marine britannique la persuada de partir avec lui en Europe voir du pays et y montrer ses atours. Arrivée en Angleterre à 16 ans, Saartje s'est retrouvée dans une cage, à Picadilly, exhibée pendant des mois comme une bête de foire. Son cas émut quelques humanistes britanniques. Une enquête judiciaire fut ouverte, mais elle déclara être là de son plein gré et gagner sa vie correctement en offrant son intimité à la vue des curieux. La jeune fille n'avait probablement pas le choix. Sa "carrière" l'amena ensuite en France, où elle poursuivit ses tournées, finit prostituée et mourut dans la misère avant d'atteindre ses 27 ans.

Sa triste histoire ne s'arrête pas là. Un anatomiste du Muséum d'histoire naturelle récupéra son corps. Il en fit un moulage avant de le disséquer, conservant son squelette, ses organes génitaux et son cerveau. Après avoir été exhibée de son vivant, Saartje Baartman continuait à être exposée au Musée de l'homme jusqu'en 1974. Ses restes ont ensuite été relégués dans les caves. Entre-temps, elle avait gagné un surnom poétique, la "Vénus hottentote". Hottentots est l'ancien nom donné aux Khoï-Khoï et aux Sans, deux groupes ethniques parmi les plus anciens d'Afrique australe.

Il y a plus de dix ans, une association culturelle des Khoïsans a commencé à se soucier du sort de Saartje Baartman et à militer pour son retour. Ce n'est qu'en 1995, après les premières élections libres en Afrique du Sud, que les Khoïsans ont pu bénéficier de l'appui des autorités. Une demande de restitution a alors été faite en bonne et due forme auprès de Paris. Les lenteurs françaises ont exaspéré les Khoïsans, qui dénoncèrent les "vestiges du colonialisme". Ce n'est qu'en février qu'à l'unanimité l'Assemblée nationale et le Sénat ont voté la restitution. "Il est plus que temps. Son retour est une étape dans la liberté de la nation, une rectification de choses qui n'auraient jamais dû avoir lieu", a commenté le directeur national du patrimoine sud-africain.

Selon le président Mbeki, ramener Saartje Baartman sur sa terre procède de la "décolonisation psychologique du pays". Les Sud-Africains ont attendu près de deux mois après le retour de la dépouille mortelle pour procéder à l'inhumation, retransmise en direct à la télévision, afin de la faire coïncider avec la Journée nationale de la femme.

Fabienne Pompey



'Sarah's exploiters were the real barbarians'

August 09 2002 at 02:58PM

President Thabo Mbeki slammed 19th century Europeans as "barbarians" on Friday at the long-delayed funeral of Sarah Baartman, who was paraded naked as a sexual freak in Britain and France in the 1800s.

"Sarah Baartman should never have been stripped of her native Khoisan and African identity and paraded in Europe as a savage monstrosity", Mbeki told about 7 000 mourners at a school in the remote Gamtoos valley in the Eastern Cape

"It was not the lonely African woman in Europe, alienated from her identity and her motherland, who was the barbarian, but those who treated her with barbaric brutality", Mbeki said.

He added that by the time Baartman died, as a consumptive prostitute in France in 1816, she had "been enlightened about the ways and barbarism" of Europeans.

She was born in the valley on August 9, 1789 - exactly 213 years ago - but had been living in Cape Town in 1810 when a British ship's doctor offered to take her to London, promising that she could earn a fortune by allowing foreigners to look at her body.

In Britain, she was paraded as a savage around circus sideshows, museums, bars and universities. There, she was forced to show off her protruding posterior, an anatomical feature of her native Khoisan people (formerly called the Hottentots), and her outsized genitalia.

Her notoriety made Baartman the source of grotesque stereotypes about race and African sexuality, many of which were perpetuated by the leading European scientific minds of the day.

Mbeki quoted Baron Georges Couvier, a French scientist who dissected Baartman's body after her death, as saying: "Her moves had something that reminded one of the monkey and her external genitalia recalled those of the orang-utang".

Baartman's remains - her skeleton and bottles containing her brain and genitialia in preserving fluid - were on display in the
Museum of Mankind in Paris until 1974.

They were flown back to South Africa in March 2002 after seven years of negotiations with the French government.

"On behalf of the government, the parliament and the people of South Africa, I am privileged to convey our heartfelt and profound thanks to the government, the parliament and the people of France for agreeing to return our Sarah to us and for living up to the noble objectives of the French revolution of liberty, equality and fraternity," Mbeki said.

"The changing times tell us that she did not suffer and die in vain. Our presence at her gravesite demands that we act to ensure that what happened should never be repeated", Mbeki said.

The ceremony started with the burning of "boegoe", a traditional herb of the Khoisan, the original inhabitants of the southern tip of
Africa, to purify her spirit.

"We are burning this traditional herb as part of our culture. We have to unite with the earth and the spirits of Sarah Baartman," said Piet Booysen, a Khoisan traditional leader.

Her remains were due to be buried on a thorny hill overlooking the small town of Hankey.

A monument will also be erected in her honour in Cape Town. - Sapa-AFP



'Hottentot Venus' speaks from beyond the grave

Novel envisions tribal woman Sarah Baartman's tragic, exploited life as a carnival 'specimen'

Reviewed by Ethan Gilsdorf

Sunday, November 9, 2003

Hottentot Venus

By Barbara Chase-Riboud


"Ladies and gentlemen . . . never before seen in fair England, a most perfect specimen. . . . Nubile, twenty-one years old, female, a true phenomenon of nature, the virgin Eve risen from the Garden of Creation to the first, primitive level of humanity."

Such are the words used by 19th century carnival hucksters to describe Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman, a Khoekhoe tribal woman from South Africa who was exhibited from 1810 to 1816 in Europe as a carnival attraction. Barbara Chase- Riboud's new novel, "Hottentot Venus," takes on Sarah's disturbing and heartbreaking fate.

The story begins in Paris moments before Sarah's death, then via flashback recounts the slaughter of her family and people, her flight from her idyllic homeland to become the Dutch family Baartman's servant, and her contractual enslavement to a British ship's doctor, William Dunlop, who promises her a fortune for "performing" in England. Instead, arriving in Piccadilly, she's kept in a bamboo cage like an animal, then purchased by a French circus promoter who brings the "Hottentot Venus" to Paris. Titillated crowds gawk at her enormous buttocks and the pendulous genital "apron" characteristic of Khoekhoe women. (The word "hottentot" is Dutch for "stutterer," what the colonial invaders called Saartjie's people.)

But Sarah's peculiar physique also attracts the attention of scientists. For it's the tail end of the Age of Reason; the quest to order the natural world reigns supreme. Expeditions bring home animal, plant and mineral specimens from the new colonies. Why not also a human oddity like Sarah, whose curious features naturally prove the inferiority of her race? In the Great Chain of Being, she is "the true, the only, missing link of evolution" between man and monkey.

In historical novels such as "Sally Hemings" (about Jefferson's slave mistress) and "Echo of Lions" (concerning the Amistad slave ship mutiny), Chase-Riboud tackled similar issues of race, power and oppression. In "Hottentot Venus," the author and part-time Paris resident portrays human degradation in new terms. After Sarah dies in 1816, her remains are publicly dissected. "It is only now, after her death, that we can satisfy ourselves as to what she possessed," remarks Georges Leopold Cuvier, Napoleon's surgeon general, before removing her brain, skeleton and genitalia. Sarah's body parts are preserved in glass jars and exhibited in Paris' Natural History Museum alongside a plaster cast of her body, a final insult heaped upon a life already stripped of its dignity.

We are meant to recall the treatment of other exotica, real or imagined, equally famous for being labeled freaks: the Elephant Man, Tarzan and King Kong. But the psychological effects of Sarah's racial exploitation are so brutal that she even refuses help from a British abolitionist society. Instead,

she seeks validation of her own humanity in the very audience that destroys her. "No one understood my need to remain here if only to prove the fact of my existence," Sarah narrates, her body ravaged by alcohol and illness. "I refused to be a figment of their imagination. I would be real in all my Hottentot monstrousness."

As a piece of writing, "Hottentot Venus" illustrates how racial cruelty can be tightly wrapped in a shroud of scientific reason. However, as a novel, it suffers from problems of voice and point of view. Chase-Riboud's characters are often mouthpieces for sophisticated arguments about property, marriage and oppression. "You are the unwitting collaborator of your own exploitation," the Rev. Robert Wedderburn proclaims in 20th century PC-speak.

Even Sarah's insights seem too prescient. "My cadaver became the unexplored Africa, the Dark Continent, dissected, violated, probed, raped by dead white men since Roman times," says her disembodied and anachronistic voice, which haunts the museum and rests in peace only in 2002, when the South African government finally persuades France to repatriate Baartman's remains.

Chase-Riboud's choice to narrate most of the novel in Sarah's first-person voice also strains believability. Sarah may be fluent in Dutch, but we're told her command of English and French is rudimentary. Yet, implausibly, it's through her eyes that dozens of legal, medical and scientific discussions in London and Paris are seen. If, in fact, she does comprehend these complex conversations, she must possess an innate sophistication at odds with her own naive view of her master Dunlop and her tragic plight. An omniscient narrator might have sidestepped these contradictions.

None of this is to belittle Chase-Riboud's honorable intentions or her outrage at Sarah's obscene treatment. But as the novel progresses, in place of illuminating Sarah's character, a case builds against the Enlightenment's biggest players. As the Hottentot Venus encounters the "dead white men" of her day, like Voltaire, Napoleon and Darwin, the reader can follow a paper trail of evidence -- letters, diaries and ephemera -- damning them back to the library stacks.

Chase-Riboud has clearly done enough research for a compelling biography. She chose the genre of the novel, perhaps because she's drawn to that murky gulf separating historical events from creative vision. But fiction is a tricky business. A story doesn't ring true because it's well argued and based in fact. An author like Chase-Riboud must bring her moral questions to life. Sarah's pitiable account aside, "Hottentot Venus" too often seems like a rhetorical exercise.

Ethan Gilsdorf  is a critic and poet living in Paris.



Object Lessons
A controversial historical figure gets a voice of her own.

Reviewed by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

Sunday, December 21, 2003; Page BW04


By Barbara Chase-Riboud. Doubleday. 320 pp. $24

Barbara Chase-Riboud's latest historical novel retells the story of Sarah Baartman, the scandalous "Hottentot Venus." In her own lifetime Baartman was powerless, much written about and pseudo-scientifically analyzed, but silent. Chase-Riboud gives her the voice of a feminist heroine.

Even today, the story of the Hottentot Venus is sometimes briefly mentioned in many American high school history books, usually as an illustrated sidebar accompanied by a picture of Baartman with her small frame and oversized buttocks. The caption usually explains that the naked South African woman dubbed "The Hottentot Venus" so mesmerized Europeans of her time that crowds of people paid money to stare at her like a display object. But what's usually not mentioned in the historical glosses is that much of the French and English public's fascination focused on her genitalia.

Baartman was born in 1789, into an aboriginal tribe Chase-Riboud refers to as the Khoekhoe. "Hottentot," meaning "stutterer," was a derisive term for their native language, which the colonialist Dutch invaders -- who killed and enslaved large numbers of Khoekhoe -- could never learn to speak. At age 20, she was taken to London, where slavery was by then illegal, under the sponsorship of Dutch investors (one of whom may have been her husband) who exhibited her in freak shows in Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket. Baartman's treatment drew the attention of London abolitionists, who took her "managers" to court, claiming that she was an exploited illiterate -- in short, a slave. She denied the charges and when called to testify she described herself as a free agent, with rights guaranteed under contract. The case was dismissed.

The trial only heightened her fame, commercial potential and scientific fascination. She joined a French circus and attracted the attention of Georges Cuvier, a renowned French scientist and physician, the so-called Aristotle of his age. Cuvier's curiosity, like that of general public, derived largely from sexual prurience: Like other Hottentots, Baartman possessed a peculiar genital "aberration" -- a lengthy, pendulous protuberance extending from the vulva. She died young and impoverished, at 27, having profited nothing from her supposed contract. Cuvier dissected her body, described her as "the missing link" and claimed that her anatomy confirmed his ideas regarding white supremacy and black inferiority. Baartman's skeleton and preserved internal organs were donated to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, where -- as difficult as it is to believe -- they remained on display until as recently as 1974.

The strange tale has a final, bittersweet twist. In recent times, the plight of the Hottentot Venus became a symbol of the exploitation of aboriginal South Africans -- and indigenous peoples everywhere. In 2002, with a formal apology from the French government, Baartman's remains were returned to South Africa for a ceremonial burial.

Out of the few facts known about Baartman's life, and a plethora of writings describing her experiences, Chase-Riboud, best known previously as the author of Sally Hemings, has fashioned a novel of mixed merit. Hottentot Venus borrows from the conventions of a historical romance. There's rape, betrayal, unrequited love. Baartman is raped but later convinces herself she loves one of her masters. She marries and pines for the very man who will betray her the most brutally.

Her first-person narrative is poetical and masterful at times, but at other times lapses into historical novel sentimentality, as in her description of her first night of passion with her future husband. " I made love to Master Dunlap. . . . Khoekhoe style, in the manner of the goddess after whom I was shaped. I reached down into my entrails and brought forth ecstasy."

Chase-Riboud is also internationally known in the field of the visual arts. Her pieces -- primarily sculptures -- often have political and feminist connotations. In fact, one of her most recent works is "Africa Rising," an 18-foot-high cast bronze sculpture inspired by Baartman's tragedy. The memorial is monumental. Hottentot Venus (the novel) suffers from an ill-suited monumentalism.

The book is at its best when Chase-Riboud keeps her righteous indignation off the page. It's at its worst when she uses Baartman or other characters as mouthpieces. Baartman's observations are at times so aware, so articulate and politicized, that her personality blurs uncomfortably with the author's. In reality, Baartman was probably so confused, sick and estranged from normality that her reality became utterly dependent on the promptings of others. Chase-Riboud's Baartman is often so astute that it's difficult to fathom why, for example, during the abolitionist trial she refuses to accuse her oppressors.

When Cuvier dissects Baartman's body, Chase-Riboud's prose bristles. The rage is palpable. During the autopsy, Cuvier experiences an erotic charge and ejaculates. Chase-Riboud has avenged in prose the unavenged life. Doubtless, Cuvier's bigotry and the many pseudo-scientific 19th-century theories of race deserve a vituperative comeuppance, but in fiction extreme moral judgments are better left to the reader, not the exposed hand of the author.

To top the action, Baartman's voice returns from the dead, and her ghost hovers above her funeral procession. "I, Sarah Baartman, the dis-human, was now an icon for all humankind," the ghost declares. I am personally overjoyed that in 2002 Baartman's physical remains were belatedly repatriated and accorded a respectful burial. But as fiction, this is overkill. •

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic.



January 14, 2007

A Life Exposed




The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus.

By Rachel Holmes.

Illustrated. 161 pp. Random House. $23.95.


Wandering through the London area of St. James’s Square today, past the old-boys’ clubs like Boodle’s and White’s, and the grim palace that Prince Charles once called home, it’s hard to imagine that in the last years of King George III’s reign carnivals of human curiosities existed side by side with these bastions of English aristocracy. But late Georgian Piccadilly — London’s most fashionable district since the Restoration — was as much a place for shows featuring “the Living Skeleton” and the 19-inch “Sicilian Fairy” as it was for members of Parliament, playwrights and self-styled gentlemen. Properly top-hatted and shawled, men and women of Britain’s upper crust gawked at, prodded and squeezed these so-called human freaks, amusing themselves with the deformities that were paraded before them.

The Hottentot Venus, with buttocks of enormous size and with genitalia fabled to be equally disproportionate, was part of this human menagerie. When she arrived in London in 1810, this young woman from South Africa became an overnight sensation in London’s theater of human oddities. Her body was the object of prurient gaze, scientific fascination and disturbed bewilderment. Today, in the hands of Rachel Holmes, a former English professor at the University of London, it is “a symbol of the alienation and degradations of colonization, lost children, exile, the expropriation of female labor and the sexual and economic exploitation of black women by men, white and black.”

It is difficult not to be propelled through “African Queen.” The story of Saartjie Baartman — the Hottentot Venus’s real name — is inherently fascinating, and littered with a diverse cast of highly unlikable characters, ranging from Baartman’s lowly black South African master, Hendrik Cesars, to the foremost European scientist of the day, Georges Léopold Chrétien Cuvier. For Holmes, Baartman’s journey as an object of European curiosity and African exploitation began on the veld of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. It was there that Baartman, scarcely more than a teenager, was left both orphaned and widowed after a European-led commando ambushed her betrothal celebration, killing her father and husband. She was taken to Cape Town where she worked for Cesars and his wife as a house servant and wet nurse. Eventually, Cesars and Alexander Dunlop, a British military doctor, smuggled her into England in hopes that her oversized posterior would make their fortune.

Baartman was thrust onto the stage in Piccadilly, in a skintight, flesh-colored get-up, complete with a panoply of African beads and ostrich feathers. Baartman’s seminaked display left little to the imagination and reinforced England’s obsession with bottoms, both literally and figuratively. (The political scene was rife with speculation over whether Lord Grenville, known for his extraordinary derrière, and his Whig coalition, known as the broad bottoms, would take over Parliament if George III abdicated.) Baartman’s arrival was, as Holmes points out, “a journalist’s dream.” She goes on to observe that “the obsession with Saartjie’s posterior, posterity and broad bottomedness, and the endless punning on rear ends, rumps, fundaments and fat arses became explicitly tied to the most pressing and topical political issues concerning the decline of King George, the rise of the Regency and which rumps would take over government.”

Her economic exploitation also became the cause célèbre of abolitionists in London, who unsuccessfully lodged a case for Baartman’s freedom. But the young woman had limited choices: a return to South Africa, where surely she would have resumed a life of servitude, or continued exploitation in England, where she at least received a small wage and a modicum of freedom. Baartman, it seemed, preferred the latter, though the option was palatable only if swallowed with a healthy dose of alcohol, something that became an addiction as her years wore on.

Eventually, the Hottentot Venus’s journey took her to France, where Cesars handed her over to a “predatory showman” named Réaux in an undisclosed deal. By the spring of 1815, she had become the object of Cuvier’s scientific and sexual interest and, with her death in December of that year, was made the subject of a gruesome, hypersexual post-mortem dissection under the famed scientist’s knife.

At pains to place Baartman’s behavior and life in a framework of feminist and psychoanalytic interpretation, Holmes presents a narrative overladen with theory, however deftly disguised. This approach does more to undermine than strengthen the story. Holmes’s preoccupation with Baartman’s relationships to paternalistic figures, for instance, stands in the way of a fuller understanding of the European world in which the young South African maneuvered. True, we get into the minds of a few key characters — Holmes performs a veritable hatchet job on Cuvier — but what of the gazers who queued up by the thousands to catch a glimpse of the famous bottom? And why did aristocratic St. James’s Square and fashionable Piccadilly permit the likes of Cesars and Dunlop into the neighborhood?

Holmes suggests that the public’s obsession with Baartman coincided with the “new era of European imperialist expansion into the African interior, feminized by its would-be British colonizers as a continent ripe for conquest.” This would be a reasonable explanation, except for the fact that it is off by several decades. Africa was still the white man’s grave when Baartman arrived on the scene. Had the history of Britain been more broadly told, “African Queen” would be a better book, and the woman and curiosity that was the Hottentot Venus would be much plainer to see.


Caroline Elkins is the Hugo K. Foster associate professor of African studies at Harvard and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.”



March 17, 2007

The very long goodbye

Ruth Scurr

The Hottentot Venus - The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman (Born 1789 – Buried 2002) by Rachel Holmes

Bloomsbury, £14.99


THE HOTTENTOT VENUS is the most upsetting book I have read this year. It tells the story of Saartjie Baartman, born in South Africa in 1789, but only buried there in 2002, after a demand by Nelson Mandela.

In 1994, during President Mitterrand’s state visit to South Africa, Mandela raised the matter of Saartjie’s repatriation. She had died in Paris in 1815, and her bones and vital organs were kept as exhibits in the Natural History Museum at the Jardin des Plantes.

The immediate cause of her death is uncertain: smallpox, alcoholism and pneumonia are possibilities. There is no ambiguity about the wider cause.

After she was smuggled to England in 1810, Saartjie was exhibited in London (and afterwards im Paris), as “The Hottentot Venus”, a beautiful African woman who inspired prurient curiosity in punters who paid to gawp at her seminaked body.

Saartjie was on show for six, later 12, hours a day, prodded, jeered and expected to sing and dance; exhaustion and desperation led to her death at the age of 26.

Rachel Holmes reconstructs this tragic life in its entirety, beginning on the bitterly contested eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. Saartjie never knew her mother, who died before she was a year old.

Her father was one of the Eastern Cape Khoisans dispossessed in 1778 when their farms were “loaned” to the Dutch. Saartjie grew up speaking Khoisan, Afrikaans and possibly Xhosa.

The British arrived in 1795 when Europe was convulsed in war after the French Revolution. The Khoisans were expert herders and cattle-men caught up in the strife between Dutch and British colonisers.

According to Saartjie, her father and intended husband were both killed, on the night of her betrothal in 1807, by a European-led commando unit. This was the year that Britain passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.

Orphaned and unmarried, Saartjie moved to Cape Town, working as a nursemaid. She had a baby with an itinerant soldier, but the child died and the soldier disappeared. Afterwards a physician known to the family for which Saartjie worked spotted her potential commercial value as a scientific curiosity in England.

In an African context, Saartjie’s physique was unremarkable, but the men who smuggled her into Britain correctly predicted that she would cause a sensation in Piccadilly where Bullock’s museum was “the most fashionable place of amusement in London”.

Holmes explains: “Bottoms were big in Georgian England. From low to high culture of all forms, Britain was a nation obsessed by buttocks, bums, arses, posteriors, derrières and every possible metaphor, joke or pun that could be squeezed from this fundamental cultural obsession.”

At Saartjie’s state funeral on August 9, 2002, President Thabo Mbeki spoke of remembrance, revision of racist history and the legacy of European science. Several youngsters, hearing of the gruesome and pornographic treatment that Saartjie received both during her lifetime and after her death, wept and fainted.

Holmes comments that “their visceral reactions exemplified the problems associated with the requirement to reproduce racist representation in order to expose it to criticism”. Holmes’s own book addresses the same problems with courage and sensitivity.


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