After London and Paris, Venus regains her dignity, but how much?

Reading time 8 min.

She was called The Hottentot Venus, for her civil status she was Saartjie (Sara) Baartman. Sent back to South Africa, her homeland, to be buried in dignity two centuries after her death, Saartjie Baartman’s life had been all but dignified. Exhibited at fairs as a circus beast in England, forced into prostitution as an exotic animal in France, Saartjie Baartman was cast in plaster and dissected upon her death and displayed at the Museum of Mankind (Musée de l’Homme) in Paris. This is the epitome of human suffering, humiliation and total disrespect. And the victim was a blackwoman.

Three francs to see the beast! The Hottentot Venus was used as an alibi to show “the superiority of the white man.” Nicknamed The Hottentot Venus and displayed at circuses, fairs, private parties and public exhibitions, Saartjie Baartman satisfied all the wildest fantasies of the European conqueror and “civilizer.” “Upon her arrival in London, a dream quickly turned into a horrendous nightmare: she was exhibited at freak shows, then used as a sex object in private shows, before eventually becoming a prostitute. Her short and dramatic life ended in Paris, where she became an object of scientific curiosity,” said an outraged French Senator, Nicolas About. Before ending up at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, where she was exhibited as an “alien” curiosity until 1974 (1985 according to some), Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman was a circus material in London. The South African woman left Cape Town in 1810 after she was persuaded by two “impresarios” that she would make a fortune in Europe.

Sold to an animal master

Her success in London quickly faded. She became a prostitute before being sold, in 1814, to an animal master who exhibited her in Paris for three francs! “Success” makes a comeback, and at the same time Parisian racialists’ elbows are greased. Her biological structure to them is a living proof of white supremacy. Sick, tired and depressed, the symbol of “African inferiority” dies a year later, at age 38. But her troubles are far from over. Her brain and private parts are dissected by Baron Cuvier, a famous scientist and Napoleon’s doctor, and preserved in formaldehyde fluid. Her body is cast in plaster and displayed at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. “Her body was dissected, her brain and organs preserved in formalin, and her skeleton exhibited at the Musée de l’Homme, as a mere obscene trophy collected from Africa. It ignites sheer stupefaction and is hard to fathom that a sordid exhibition of such nature lasted in France until in 1974! Today, the remains of this woman rots in a shed at the Musée de l’Homme,” Nicolas About, visibly irritated, told the French Senate.

French Senators voted Thursday February 21, 2002, to return the remains of Saartjie Baartman back to her country of origin, to be buried in dignity. Two hundred long years later, the Hottentot Venus has been appeased. But what has this demeaning culture of racial disrespect left in the European society? Tradition, according to the dictionary is; the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc. Does this mean that Miss Baartman’s legacy of inferiority handed down, first through her own experience and later as a stuffed animal, to prove the superiority of the whiteman still lingers on? If lawmakers are well aware of the power of traditions, they should maybe take more radical steps to re-educate people by establishing a proper memorial in Miss Saartjie Baartman’s honour.

A biographical film, produced by Zola Maseko and financed by France Télévisions, entitled; The Life and Times of Sara Baartman: “The Hottentot Venus” was released in 1998. In the Diary of an anxious Black Woman, Saartjie Baartman’s biography is related as follows:

Baartman was born at a time 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 during her time period) 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 this the raid, and eventually she migrated to the urban center of the Cape Town for survival, where she worked as a servant to a Boer farmer named Peter Cezar.

It was at Cezar’s home where his brother, Hendrik Cezar, first noticed Baartman during a visit to the house and later conceived of the “Hottentot Venus” show during his visit. The show, which would take place in London at the famous Piccadilly Circus, would exploit European interests in African natives, especially in the “Hottentots,” who had already become mythical in the European imagination. The Hottentot Venus show would also capitalize on the 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 “Hottentot apron,” an extra flap of skin covering the vaginal area.

Hendrik Cezar formed a partnership with a British ship surgeon, Alexander Dunlop, who both entertained the idea of Baartman’s exhibition. They 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 at the 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: with 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 seeing Baartman in a cage. These witnesses also described Baartman appearing 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 in the show’s indecency. As a result, the show disappeared from London but may have surfaced in the English countryside.

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. Baartman later attracted the attention of three revered natural scientists, including the infamous George Cuvier. In March 1815, Baartman was subjected to scientific observations; she was already an alcoholic at the time, and the scientists enticed her with alcohol and sweets to pose nude. Baartman refused, however, to reveal what they had hoped to witness: a view of her “Hottentot apron.”

In 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.

Also read: The Netherlands gives back the head of King Badu Bonsu II to Ghana

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