I have long wanted to talk about Sarah Baartman, known as the Hottentot Venus or the Black Venus. This Black woman was promised a life of fortune, taken to Europe as a slave to be exhibited naked to men and women around Europe just because of her physique, the physique of a Black woman. Her life was that of humiliation, prostitution, and slavery of another name. Her story is a very hard one to hear when you are a Black woman, when you love Black women, or when you love women in general. Her life was not that of a Venus, but rather that of a sex slave and zoo animal being exposed naked all the time, and raped by men who dreamt of “trying” this Black Venus. She was displayed as a freak because of her unusual physical features, studied, dissected after death and will only finally be put to rest 187 years after her death.
Sawtche, from her real name, was born in 1789 in the Eastern Cape, of modern-day South Africa. Her father was from the Khoikhoi tribe, and her mother came from the Bushmen or San tribe, the oldest tribe in Southern Africa. Women from that tribe are known to have a lighter skin tone, with very developed hips. In the Khoi tribe, it is a sign of beauty, but to Europeans who had never seen it, it was considered a physical deformation or a sign of racial inferiority (not sure how having a flat bum-bum can attest of a race superiority). As a teen, Sawtche was a typical Khoi woman of medium build and light skin tone, and as will be said today, with a big bootie. Even if she was beautiful, no one in her tribe was shocked by her physique given that thousands of women were just as Sawtche.
She was captured and moved to the Gamtoos River as the slave of a rich Afrikaner farmer for whom she worked several months. A Dutch doctor working for the Royal Navy, William Dunlop, met the farmer, and noticed Sawtche and was not indifferent to her physique. She seemed to meet all his sexual fantasies, and so he decided to buy her. He made her his slave and sexual servant, and took her back to Cape Town, and from there taken onboard a boat to London where he gave her the name Sarah or Saartjie (little Sarah in dutch).
In 1810 in London, Sarah was only 16, and Dunlop was very manipulative. He constantly had sexual relations with her, and the young woman thought he loved her. He made her believe that in London, and throughout Europe, she could become rich just by exposing her body. He told her that white women didn’t have the same physique and will be willing to see her in exchange for some money. White Men will be crazy to touch and get the power to touch a Black woman, object of their wildest most secret fantasies, in exchange for money.
Sarah accepted without hesitation, and was quickly exposed in cities in England and in the Netherlands, exhibiting her body under all orders given her. As an animal, she walked, stood up or sat obediently. The public was mixed with astonishment, amusement, disgust, and stupefaction. Those men and women who wanted to approach her, those who wanted to touch her did. People told her all sorts of words, sweet as well as disdainful. Doctors and scientists came up with all sorts of theories to explain her anatomy. It was clear to them that Sarah was the proof of the Black race’s inferiority! To them, she was victim of a sickness that was the lot of all people of her race. Her sickness was called steatopygy, and since her sexual organs were abnormally developed she was said to be suffering from macronymphy (even though this is a normal characteristic found only in Black women).
A young Jamaican, Robert Wedderburn, activist against racism and slavery watched those disgusting scenes and decided to act. He formed a support group for Sarah and started a series of judiciary pressures against the British government to stop this sort of horrible spectacles. Because of all these pressures, Sarah was taken to Paris, where she was exposed publicly between two circus spectacles, in music halls, and in the halls of the Haute Bourgeoisie. They called her the Hottentot Venus. She ended up being forced to prostitute herself at private soirees where she became a true sex object, believing that in due time she will be given the money she had made up to then.
It is at that time that she became the subject of studies by zoologist and surgeon Georges Cuvier, generalist, and surgeon of Napoleon Bonaparte. For him, Sarah was the missing link between the animal and man. The zoology professor and administrator of the National museum of Natural History of France, Etienne Geoffroy de Saint Hilaire, asked for the official authorization to “profit from the circumstances given them to have a Bushman woman in Paris to study, with more precision, the distinct characteristics of a peculiar race.” [« profiter de la circonstance offerte par la présence à Paris d’une femme bochimane pour donner avec plus de précision qu’on ne l’a fait jusqu’à ce jour, les caractères distinctifs de cette race curieuse. » ] de Saint Hilaire concluded his studies by comparing the face of Sarah with that of an orang-utang and her buttocks to those of female mandrills!
Later, the writer Victor Hugo made reference to Sarah in his work “Les Misérables” in 1862, describing the activities of the city of Paris: “Paris is like a good child. He royally accepts everything: it is not difficult in fact of a Venus; Her callipyge is Hottentot; provided he laughs, he amnesties ; ugliness cheers him, difformity delights him, vice distracts him […]: « Paris est bon enfant. Il accepte royalement tout ; il n’est pas difficile en fait de Vénus ; sa callipyge est hottentote ; pourvu qu’il rie, il amnistie ; la laideur l’égaye, la difformité le désopile, le vice le distrait […] »
Sarah died in Paris on 29 December 1815 at the age of 26. She died poor, she who was made to think that she could become rich by exposing her body as an art object.
After her death, Georges Cuvier dissected her body, and displayed her remains. He gathered her brains and genital organs which he conserved in formol. He extracted her skeleton and continued his studies about the missing link between humans and monkey. In 1817, he presented his work at the Academy of Medicine, and concluded, “the races [the niggers] are condemned to eternal inferiority.” [« Les races à crâne déprimé et comprimé [les “ nègres ”] sont condamnées à une éternelle infériorité. »]
Her genitals, skeleton, brain, and a plaster cast of her body were exposed for over 150 years in Paris until 1975. In 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, the Khoi people’s first request was for the return of Sarah’s remains. But the French government refused stating that they wanted to conserve their “national collections.” However, after several discussions, on 9 August 2002, Sarah was inhumed near the village of Hankey in Eastern Cape in a ceremony presided by President Thabo Mbeki, several ministers, and traditional chiefs Khoi.
Weird how today, most women around the world wish for a nice bum-bum, and some are willing to pay thousands to have it protruding, while the beautiful Sarah was exploited, humiliated, raped, for simply being beautiful, the way her Creator had made her.
There’s more to the story: Sarah would have been considered highly attractive and desirable to her people. The Dutch told Sarah if she came with them to Paris they would make her a celebrity and she would be treated like a queen. Her humiliation was even greater because she was deceived. If only Sarah had known that nearly 50 years after her death she would inspire the fashion of the times. Women wanted to resemble her shape so they began wearing corsets and ridiculous layers of clothes with a back bump. Her shape became the most coveted and white women would risk death wearing constricting corsets. In fact, many white women died from having their ribs crushed and internal organs like kidneys and the stomach moved up and out of place. Instead Sarah died of shame and disease. At last, in 2002, she was laid back into dignity at home among her ancestors!