Barely eighteen months after the remains of Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman were returned to her native South Africa, Doubleday Books published the award-winning sculptor and writer Barbara Chase-Riboud’s historical novel Hottentot Venus, a stirring fictional account of Baartman’s life. In it, Chase-Riboud has resurrected yet another figure relegated to historical obscurity, and prods us to examine man’s inhumanity to man based upon race and/or gender.
Hottentot Venus tells the story of Sarah Baartman, a woman of the KhoiKhoi people who originally inhabited what is now the Eastern Cape in South Africa. The KhoiKhoi were relentlessly slaughtered and enslaved by the Dutch as they wrenched control of the land from these nomadic cattle herders during the eighteenth century.
Baartman, who was born in the Gamtoos valley in 1794, moved to Cape Town in an attempt to survive. Here, she was discovered by the British doctor Alexander William Dunlop, who convinced her that she would have a better life in England if she would consent to being displayed as an anthropological curiosity. For women of the KhoiKhoi were renowned for their prominent buttocks, as well as enlarged external genitalia that had fascinated European scientists since the seventeenth century.
In 1810, Baartman set sail with Dunlop for Europe. She could not have been prepared for what actually awaited her there – a life of degrading public and pseudoscientific scrutiny, leading to alcoholism, prostitution, and death at the age of 26.
She went to England first. At 225 Piccadilly in London, she was put on display among other human attractions at what can only be described as a circus or “freak show”. Chase-Riboud writes the following as an advertisement for Baartman’s “debut”:
Thursday, September 20, 1810:
The Hottentot Venus has just arrived…She comes directly from the banks of the Chamtoo River, at the frontier of the Cape Colony. She is one of the most PERFECT specimens of this race. Thanks to this extraordinary phenomenon of nature, the PUBLIC will have the occasion to judge to what extent she surpasses all the descriptives of historians concerning this tribe…
The reactions of the crowds, which ranged from disgust to pity, were nonetheless rooted in curiosity and amazement. Never before had anyone seen such a “creature”, the “missing link of evolution”.
Her predicament was noted by the abolitionists of the day, particularly by a Jamaican named Robert Wedderburn, who had founded a society to fight racism in England. He and his colleagues succeeded in having Dunlop brought before a London court to determine whether or not he was keeping Baartman against her will. But Baartman herself claimed that she was a willing participant in the show, and the court eventually dismissed the case.
Four years later, Baartman was taken to Paris, where she became part of an animal trainer’s show at a location similar to that at Piccadilly in London. She also became the object of intense scientific interest. Led by Baron Georges Cuvier, an influential comparative naturalist, a body of scientists was already in the process of creating a hierarchy of human races, of which they placed Europeans at the pinnacle. Baartman’s presence in Paris presented a prime opportunity to see firsthand the Hottentot “apron”, the genitalia that attracted so many paying clients for her “promoter”. She was subjected to three days of poking, prodding, and cajoling as scientists attempted to examine them during a congress held at the Museum of Natural History in the Jardin du Roi (the present day Jardin des Plantes). But she refused to open her legs.
These same scientists got their chance when Baartman died, less than a year later, of an inflammatory disease that some speculate was tuberculosis, others, syphilis. Cuvier cast Baartman’s body in plaster, then proceeded to dissect her. He also made a wax cast of her genitals, and finally, preserved her brain and genitals in jars. The body cast and organs were placed on exhibit at the MusÃ©e de l’Homme (The Museum of Mankind), where they remained on display until the mid 1970s.
Chase-Riboud first encountered Baartman at the museum during the 1970s. A glass case, prominently placed at the top of the stairs, contained her body cast and organs. Chase-Riboud read the cards describing the contents of the case with horror. As she continued through the gallery, she also saw the heads of several Africans that were taken as “trophies” during the conquest of the Continent. She said that she could not leave quickly enough, and never went back.
After the publication of Chase-Riboud’s novel Sally Hemings (Viking, 1979), a French historian sent her a collection of documents on Baartman. Chase-Riboud began reading them, and the disgust that she felt upon viewing Baartman’s remains at the museum was further fueled by the details that she read of Baartman’s ignoble treatment, both in life and after death. She became determined to tell Baartman’s story, to memorialize her.
When Chase-Riboud won the 1995 competition to create a memorial for the African burial ground found north of Wall Street in Manhattan, she drew upon her desire to restore Baartman’s human dignity while fashioning the sculpture called Africa Rising (1998). The figure atop the sculpture evokes at once the Nike of Samothrace, modeled after the Greek goddess of victory, and Baartman, whose influence is evident in the prominent posterior that juts backward in parallel with the wings of the Nike above. Africa Rising was cited by the 1998 U.S. General Services Administration’s (GSA) Design Awards program as conveying “the powerful emotions and meaning of this historic site. . . result[ing] in a symbolic landmark sculpture, stunning in formal beauty and rich in collective history."
In 1994, the same year that the GSA announced that it would hold a competition for the memorial, South Africa’s newly elected president Nelson Mandela opened dialogue with French president François Mitterand to negotiate the return of Baartman’s remains to her homeland. Eight years of passionate arguments about Baartman’s legal status in France and about the possibility that her return to South Africa might set a precedent for other countries to reclaim other relics in French museums followed.
But the French Senate eventually produced a bill that would sanction the release. On January 29, 2002, Senator Nicolas About, author of the bill, defended it eloquently and valiantly. Chase-Riboud presents a lengthy excerpt of his speech near the end of the novel:
—It is high time that the mortal remains of Sarah Baartman, deprived of sepulture, can know at last the peace of a grave in her motherland of South Africa, freed of apartheid…
—…just what is she? Are we talking about a simple object in a museum? Or are we talking about a human relic who needs special protection? Does France really own the Venus? Or are we her guardian? In no case is the storeroom of a museum a mausoleum worthy of a human being…
The bill passed unanimously on that same day. And on May 3, 2002, Sarah Baartman’s remains finally arrived in Cape Town. She was buried on a hilltop in Hankey, near the Gamtoos River on August 9, 2002.
Hottentot Venus is almost mystical in the passages where Chase-Riboud describes Baartman’s love for her native land and the kinship that she had with nature. These passages starkly contrast with those that portray the humiliation and misery that she experienced as a “specimen”, brought directly from the Dark Continent to entertain the general public.
Chase-Riboud quotes extensively and verbatim from nineteenth-century writings on race, which lends a chilling authenticity to the actions that take place during the year that Baartman lived in Paris. She writes much of the tale in the first person, from Baartman’s perspective, but also from the perspectives of Dunlop, Cuvier and others who interacted with her during her brief time in Europe. And she cites addresses where actual events occurred, which allows those who wish to pay homage to Baartman in London and in Paris to visit the places where the unfortunate KhoiKhoi woman was lodged or displayed.
Monique Y. Wells is co-owner of Discover Paris! – Personalized Itineraries for Independent Travelers as well as the author of Food for the Soul – A Texas Expatriate Nurtures her Culinary Roots in Paris. She was recently featured on the Food Network series “Recipe for Success”, by Al Roker Productions.