Rachel Holmes retells the true story of Saartjie (Little Sarah) Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” a young South African woman whose international adventures spanned more than 200 years.
Saartjie (pronounced Saar-kie in Afrikaans) was a woman of the Khoikhoi people, who were called “Hottentots” by the Dutch settlers in South Africa. In 1789, when she was born, the Khoikhoi had been decimated by the results of white colonization, especially due to introduced diseases to which they had no resistance.
When whites murdered Saartjie’s father and her betrothed, she ended up as a servant of a free Black man, Hendrik Cesars, in Capetown. Cesars was an employee of a rather disreputable British army doctor, Alexander Dunlop. Eventually, Dunlop and Cesars smuggled Saartjie to London to exhibit her for money to a gawking British public.
Saartjie could dance, sing in Dutch and in her native tongue, and play a South African stringed instrument called a ramkie. But what pulled in the crowds was that Saartjie looked different. Like many of her people, she was of very short stature but had extremely well developed buttocks. Dunlop and Cesars dressed her up in their approximation of Khoikhoi national dress: a flesh colored (i.e. nude) leotard and various trinkets representing traditional adornments.
Billed as “the Hottentot Venus,” she had to perform for long hours while Dunlop and Cesars raked in the money. A number of people, including the anti-slavery campaigner Zachariah McAuley, were shocked by the spectacle and jumped to the reasonable conclusion that Dunlop and Cesars were exploiting her in a manner both illegal and immoral.
McAuley and his friends filed a writ of habeas corpus on her behalf. Saartjie herself assured the court that she was not being mistreated or kept against her will. But the episode did get her a contract guaranteeing her half the profits of her appearances.
Saartjie Baartman was eventually taken to Paris, where she aroused the interest of the scientist Georges Cuvier. When she died soon after, her body was hardly cold when Cuvier had it in his laboratory, slicing away to find out if her insides were as remarkable as her outsides.
Her skeleton, plus her brain and genitals preserved in brandy, were later put on public display in the Jardin des Plantes.
Eventually the “Hottentot Venus” was forgotten in Europe, but not in South Africa. When the apartheid regime fell in 1994, one of the first acts of the new president, Nelson Mandela, was to ask the French government to return Saartjie Baartman’s remains. After a bit of resistance, this was finally done, and Saartjie was buried with a dignified ceremony in the Eastern Cape where she was born.
Holmes, with great skill and charm and on the basis of meticulous research, tells all this. She explores sexist and racist dimensions of the exploitation of Saartjie Baartman from a number of angles. She rejects the idea that the interest in Saartjie by the European public was a non-sexual fascination with what seemed to them grotesque. The fascination was both racist and prurient.
Holmes finds Cuvier particularly repulsive because, while treating Saartjie with feigned friendliness, he did not even observe the legal niceties before dissecting her body. But this reader was bothered by something else also. At the time, there were people in Europe who denounced it as exploitation. Yet a hundred years and more later, similar things and worse were being done in Europe and North America.
While the court officials in London who interviewed Saartjie when the habeas corpus petition was presented treated her decently and concluded that she was an adult able to manage her own affairs, pseudo-scientific racists here in the United States up through the first half of the 20th century still promoted the idea of nonwhite people as “half savage and half child,” in Rudyard Kipling’s awful phrase. What is the guarantee that such things cannot happen again?
African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus By Rachel Holmes Random House, 2007 Hardcover, 176 pp., $23.95