“The Hottentot Venus – just arrived…from the banks of the river Gamtoos, on the borders of Kaffraria, in the interior of South Africa, a most correct and perfect specimen of that race of people.”
Thus reads an ad in a 1810 London newspaper, promoting Saartjie1 Baartman, a Khoikhoi2 woman part-owned by the British military doctor, Alexander Dunlop, and to be paraded in Piccadilly Street as a freak. In 1814 she was sold to a certain Reaux, a Frenchman who showcased animals, and who displayed Sara in a cage next to a hippopotamus.
George Cuvier, a French naturalist then got permission to study Saartjie as a science specimen. He concluded that she was a link between animals and humans. Upon her death in 1815, Sara’s brain and genitals were pickled, and put on public display at the Musée de l’Homme until 1974. Her remains were returned to South Africa in 2002, eight years after a request from then president Nelson Mandela.
This abject history illustrates the well-worn dangers of appeals to normality, etc. Baartman was paraded as the opposite of a Caucasian female, objectified and poked fun at by colonial Londoners. The cartoon shows Cupid ‘riding’ her buttocks, and warning readers to watch their hearts. The bottom legend reads “Love and Beauty.” This African beauty was also seen as masculine because of her love of smoking. Baartman had a lit pipe3 when she first appeared on stage.
Apart from her intermediate limbo status between two zones of normality, that of European humans and animals in general, there are suggestions of sexual primitivism as well, hallmark of the savage.
Baartman’s body was also the foundation for scientific racism. Cuvier used her body to create a borderline between the ‘abnormal’ African woman and ‘normal’ European woman. Ironically, within a few decades European women had begun wearing a bustle, a framework worn under a dress that made their bottoms seem bigger.
And so it goes…
- ‘Saartjie’ is a Dutch diminutive of ‘Sara’. The surname means ‘beard-man’.
- Originally called ‘Hottentots’ by the Dutch, an onomatopoeia of the clicking sounds in the various Khoi languages. The term is now considered derogatory.
- The smoking of long, slim-stemmed pipes among women is traditional in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa.