“Hottentot Venus” was the moniker given to a series of women exhibited in sexually suggestive, ethnic curiosity shows in England and France in the early nineteenth century. The woman who is most linked with the icon, Saartjie Baartman, was the first to take the role. Baartman, who was also called Sarah or Sara, was a native of South Africa. It is generally believed that she was born around 1788, and she may have been twenty years of age or older in 1810 when she arrived in London, England, to perform in the “Hottentot Venus” show. She died in Paris, France, in 1816. Even after Baartman’s death, the “Hottentot Venus” show continued, featuring unnamed women, including one performing at the ball of a duchess in Paris in 1829 and another performing at Hyde Park in London in 1838.
Baartman was born during the period of Dutch colonization in South Africa. Her indigenous name is uncertain, but the name Saartjie is Dutch for “little Sara.” Baartman was raised in a rural indigenous community of Khoisan, the descendants of the Khoi Khoi people (who were already rumored to have been wiped out) and the San. The Khoi Khoi were derogatorily referred to as “Hottentots,” while the San were called “Bushmen.” Both Khoi Khoi and San were labeled “missing links” between humans and apes in racist scientific arguments because of their hunter-gatherer lifestyles and unusual speech patterns, which the Dutch dismissed as guttural animal sounds. Such views dehumanized the Khoi Khoi and San, who were targeted for extermination and removal. Baartman was already a married woman when she experienced one of these extermination raids on her community. She lost her husband and family in the raid, and eventually she migrated to the urban center of Cape Town for survival, taking work as a servant to a Boer farmer named Peter Cezar.
Cezar’s brother, Hendrik Cezar, noticed Baartman during a visit to the house and later conceived of the “Hottentot Venus” show. The show, which would take place in London at the famous Piccadilly Circus, would exploit European interests in African natives, especially the “Hottentots,” who had already become mythical in the European imagination. It would also exploit English interests in South Africa, since Great Britain had battled with the Dutch over control of the African colony. Aside from these racial and political elements, the “Hottentot Venus” show would also capitalize on prurient interests in so-called primitive sexuality, described in the tall-tale accounts of explorers who fabricated stories of “Hottentot” women’s oversized buttocks and mysterious genitalia excess— rumored to be an extra flap of skin covering the vaginal area and known as the “Hottentot apron.”
Hendrik Cezar formed a partnership with a British ship surgeon, Alexander Dunlop, both entertaining the idea of Baartman’s exhibition in Europe. It is believed that both men convinced Baartman to enter into a contract on the “Hottentot Venus” show, in which she would share in the profits of her exhibition. They left the Cape for London in 1810 and arrived in September of that year. Dunlop eventually dropped out of the business transaction when a local merchant purchased a giraffe skin from the two men but refused to invest in Baartman. Nonetheless, Cezar advertised the show and billed Baartman as a “most correct specimen of her race.” The “Hottentot Venus” exhibition, which took place at 225 Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly Circus, was instantly popular and inspired bawdy ballads and political cartoons, thus demonstrating how the icon of the Hottentot Venus became a fixture in the culture. This image created a fetish out of her backside, and it possibly served as the basis for a fashion development: the mid- to late-nineteenth-century bustle, which gave the illusion of a large bottom.
The show also provoked outrage, as various witnesses complained about what they perceived as an occurrence of slavery. These witnesses described Baartman as appearing in a cage nearly nude and being threatened with violence by her exhibitor. These complaints soon led to the intervention of the African Institution, an abolitionist organization that brought Hendrik Cezar to trial for practicing slavery and public indecency. Baartman testified on her own behalf, but she did not corroborate stories of being held against her will and only complained about not having enough clothes to wear. The courts eventually dismissed the case but mandated that Cezar discontinue the show’s indecency. As a result, the show disappeared from London but may have surfaced in the English countryside. There is evidence that Baartman passed through Manchester, where a baptism certificate indicates her conversion to Christianity and her adoption of the name Sarah Baartman in December 1811.
In 1814, Cezar and Baartman arrived in Paris, where Cezar abandoned her to an animal trainer named Reaux. Baartman continued in the “Hottentot Venus” show, which caused the same sensation in Paris as it had in London. It is
possible that her audiences also included the Parisian elite, since she was featured at salons and private parties. Baartman later attracted the attention of three revered natural scientists George Cuvier (who served as Napoleon’s surgeon general), Henri de Blainville, and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. In March 1815, these three men subjected Baartman to scientific observations in the Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden) of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. Baartman was already an alcoholic at the time, and the scientists enticed her with alcohol and sweets to pose nude. She refused, however, to reveal what they had hoped to witness: a view of her “Hottentot apron.” Engaging scientific theories of “missing links,” Cuvier posited that Baartman was really a San, and he began referring to her as “my Bush-woman.” However, de Blainville remained convinced that she was a “Hottentot.”
Less than a year after this scientific inquest, Baartman died from complications of alcoholism. Upon her death, Cuvier acquired her cadaver, using it to write his 1817 scientific thesis unveiling the mystery of her “apron.” In this thesis, Cuvier compared her genitalia with those of apes and crafted racist scientific theories, which circulated for more than a century, on African women’s oversexed and subhuman status. He also molded a plaster cast of Baartman’s body and preserved her genitalia (considered “enormous” in comparison to white women) and her brain (considered “small” in comparison to white men) in jars of formaldehyde fluid, which remained on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris as late as the 1980s. Baartman’s skeletal remains were also housed at this museum, alongside other skeletons displayed for scientific study.
In 1995, under Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid government, South Africa agitated for the return of Baartman’s remains and began a nearly decade-long feud with the French government over this troubling history. Seven years later, in March 2002, the French Senate finally agreed to return Baartman’s remains—including her preserved organs—for burial in her homeland. On August 9, 2002, National Women’s Day in South Africa, thousands attended Baartman’s centuries-delayed funeral in Cape Town. She was buried along the River Gamtoos.
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