Saartjie Baartman was twenty-one years old when she was taken from her native South Africa and shipped to London. Within weeks, the striking African beauty was the talk of the social season of 1810–hailed as “the Hottentot Venus” for her exquisite physique and suggestive semi-nude dance. As her fame spread to Paris, Saartjie became a lightning rod for late Georgian and Napoleonic attitudes toward sex and race, exploitation and colonialism, prurience and science. In African Queen, Rachel Holmes recounts the luminous, heartbreaking story of one woman’s journey from slavery to stardom.
Born into a herding tribe known as the Eastern Cape Khoisan, Saartjie was barely out of her teens when she was orphaned and widowed by colonial war and forced aboard a ship bound for England. A pair of clever, unscrupulous showmen dressed her up in a body stocking with a suggestive fringe and put her on the London stage as a “specimen” of African beauty and sexuality. The Hottentot Venus was an overnight sensation.
But celebrity brought unexpected consequences. Abolitionists initiated a lawsuit to win Saartjie’s freedom, a case that electrified the English public. In Paris, a team of scientists subjected her to a humiliating public inspection as they probed the mystery of her sexual allure. Stared at, stripped, pinched, painted, worshipped, and ridiculed, Saartjie came to symbolize the erotic obsession at the heart of colonialism. But beneath the costumes and the glare of publicity, this young Khoisan woman was a person who had been torn from her own culture and sacrificed to the whims of fashionable Europe.
Nearly two centuries after her death, Saartjie made headlines once again when Nelson Mandela launched a campaign to have her remains returned to the land of her birth. In this brilliant, vividly written book, Rachel Holmes traces the full arc of Saartjie’s extraordinary story–a story of race, eros, oppression, and fame that resonates powerfully today.
Rachel Holmes’ new book, Eleanor Marx: A Life is published by Bloomsbury on 8 May 2014, described by Golden PEN Award winner Gillian Slovo as “a dazzling account of a woman and her family, an age and a movement, that grips from the first page to the last.”
Holmes is also the author of The Hottentot Venus: The life and death of Saartjie Baartman (Bloomsbury) and The Secret Life of Dr James Barry (Viking & Tempus Books). Last year Rachel co-edited, with Lisa Appignanesi and Susie Orbach, the much-discussed Fifty Shades of Feminism (Virago). She was co-commissioning editor of Sixty Six Books: 21st Century Writers Speak to the King James Bible (Oberon, 2011) with Josie Rourke and Chris Haydon. Holmes is curator of the new Impossible Conversations talks series at the Donmar Warehouse in London.
In 2010 she received an Arts Council cultural leadership award as one of Britain’s Fifty Women to Watch. Rachel Holmes has worked with and for British Council literature festivals and international programmes since 2000.
This is a book I had to read fast and it's comparatively short at 116 pages (not counting the footnotes). But it's a story that will stay with me. It's the story of Saartjie Baartman, who became famous as "the Hottentot Venus" in London in the early 19th Century. Saartjie was a member of the Khoisan tribe of the Cape Colony in present-day South Africa. These were the people called "Hottentots" by the Dutch settlers who colonized South Africa (and who were called the "Boers" or farmers). Saartjie became orphaned and widowed as a young woman and became a domestic servant of a Boer family. She learned their language (Afrikaans). Then, a pair of showmen took her on a ship bound for England, where they put her on stage as a "specimen" of African sexuality. This was a time when "freak shows" were all the rage in London and the young Khoisan woman became an overnight sensation. She was not exhibited in the nude-she wore a body stocking. However, it left little to the imagination. Much of the attraction for white Englishmen was Saartjie's large posterior which caused much comment-and joking. This is a tragic story on both levels--for what this story tells us about race and oppression and for what happened to Saartjie. She had been promised that she would be returned to South Africa--but she was never able to return to her homeland. She was taken to Paris--and abandoned there where she died. Almost 200 years later, Nelson Mandela launched a campaign to have her remains returned to South Africa. On August 9, 2002, Saartjie was given a state funeral and buried on a hillcrest in her ancestral homeland while a women's choir sang, "You are returning to your fatherland under African skies."
Author seemed like she was trying I guess but it felt like the book still read as a continuation of the legacy of engaging with baartman as a spectacle. The title omitting saartjie baartman’s actual name, using illustrations based on sexualized performances catering to racist colonialist fetishizing for cover art, and Including pics of the drawn nudes she was coerced into posing for at length- one of which was done by a man whose “”scientific””” attraction to her culminated in purchasing her corpse after her early death related to the awful conditions of her life, dismembering her, and hoarding her various body parts in a private collection- seems entirely incompatible with taking the inhuman way she was treated seriously and was really disturbing. I guess authors don’t necessarily make those choices but regardless it totally undermined the author’s attempt to engage with her as a complete human. It felt weird that the author kept going on about how good looking she was (couldn’t tell if it was in a fetishy way or pretty=human logic attempt to combat her dehumanization- weird either way) and bothered me when the author presented speculation about what baartman might have felt or done as fact; that’s not really a cool way to treat any actual person you’re writing about historically but it’s especially disturbing given that the book is about someone so catastrophically dehumanized during and after her life. Writing about experiences far removed from your own is delicate and I do believe there are situations, especially when the author is someone who has benefited from advantages from others experiencing the kind of mistreatment being discussed, where it just isn’t your place.. I think this was one of those times, and it shows
A well-done and well-researched biography/history of Saartijie Baartman, the so called Hottentot Venus from South Africa, it tells her whole tragic story and how she was exploited both during and after her lifetime. The book was a bit graphic at times, especially in reference to the obsession of 19th century scientists to sexualize the African female as proof of white supremacy, and their demanding to see her nude (which she never willingly did while she was alive). I did find it interesting that not only did she die in France but was not repatriated back to her home country of South Africa until 2002, after her skeleton, genitals and brain had been on display from 1815-1970s. She was used not only as cause for repatriation of African artifacts, but also as a symbol of her country and women's rights therein.
The Hottentot Venus exhibit--promising to present a rare African woman from the Hottentot region for public view--opened in London in 1810 to an expectant audience waiting to see the new curiosity otherwise known as Saartjie ("Saar-key") Baartman. Saartjie's skills as a performer combined with her particularly large buttocks and allusions to her supposedly extended labia only added to the exhibit's appeal to rich (white) Londoners.
According to Rachel Holmes, author of "African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus," Saartjie Baartman is one of South Africa's most widely known historical figures. Everyone in South Africa knows Saartjie's name and story.
Born in 1789, Saartjie was illegally transported to England by her master Hendrik Cesars, a free black, and Cesar's employer military doctor Alexander Dunlop. Once in London, Saartjie debuted as the Hottentot Venus. Singing and dancing and generally exhibiting herself in "tribal" attire before fashionable Londoners in the audience, Saartjie was, Holmes writes, "got up like a fetish and a showgirl." It also helped that Lord Granville, a well-known politician of the time, had a large posterior similar to Saartjie's. Thanks to this combination of otherness and entertainment disguised as scientific curiosity, Saartjie became England's most well known black entertainer of her time.
Her fame covered the darker fact that Saartjie was "literally a scientific object," Holmes said. This fact was painfully obvious after her death in 1815 when renowned French scientist Georges Cuvier supervised Saartjie's dissection. Her skeleton, brain, genitals and full plaster casts of her body remained in the collection of Paris' Museum of Natural History until 2002 when they were returned to South Africa for a proper burial. In the 189 years between her death and burial, Holmes says, Saartjie became a "living ancestor" in South Africa, "a representative figure in the struggle for women's equality in South Africa." This book tells all of the story, the glamorous and dark aspects of Saartjie's life. The prose flows well and is written simply, making the book a quick and informative read.
When Holmes came to Saartjie's story she "literally had bare bones" and a variety of scientific documents from which to start her research. Unable to read or write, Saartjie was in many ways a slave during her years of performing. While many offered theories on how Saartjie must feel (abolitionists tried to persuade her to attend bible school and return to Africa; Saartjie refused in favor of promised wages and return passage at the end of six years abroad), "no one asked for her opinion." Holmes does a good job here of imagining what Saartjie might have said if asked. The book includes a lot of inference on Holmes' part, but not enough to make the story ring untrue.
"African Queen" is Holmes' second biographical work (her first was "Scanty Particulars," which tells the story of James Barry--a British doctor who was likely a woman, or hermaphrodite, living as a man). Holmes says that she chooses to write historical and biographical works because "truth is always more curious than fiction."
She also felt compelled to tell the stories of those who did not have a hand in writing history, namely the people who were not privileged, literate or otherwise empowered during their lives. These ideas of fact and fiction converged when Apartheid ended in South Africa, giving citizens the opportunity to "uncover our history and unravel the fictions that were sold as reality," Holmes says.
Writing "African Queen" took five years, including extensive research in South Africa and Europe. When asked how she found all of her material--describing the experiences of a woman who was never interviewed and who left behind no personal writings--Holmes said, "If you work hard enough you can go back two hundred years. You can find the information."
This book definitely read like a texbook. I did learn some new things about Hottentot, but a good narrative would have tied it all together. I would like to read more books about hottentot in the future.
The life of Saartjie Baartman is fascinating. If you're a casual reader of interesting histories, you'll probably like this.
My problem with the prose is as a snotty former history major. There's far too much sermonizing. Amidst all of the author's yammering on about reestablishing Baartman's humanity, she failed to realize that she was using Baartman for her own feminist symbolism. This is minor, though, compared to the author's failure to understand much of the time and people under discussion.
For example, the author's treatment of Georges Cuvier. He was hardly a paragon of racial harmony, granted. While his reasons for being interested in Baartman's corpse were based on scientific interest in her genitalia, this hardly made him unique among scientists of the time. To make Cuvier seem all the more villainous and creepy, the author details her inhumane dissection, and the storage of her body parts in jars just outside of Cuvier's personal chambers. The writing seems designed to make us envision him staring at Saartjie's pickled parts each night before bed. As stated, Cuvier was a classic chauvinistic *sshole of the 1800s. I agree with the author that this mindset allowed him to seize upon Saartjie's corpse without any qualms. But his private rooms, provided by his employer, were where his private rooms were, plain and simple. As for the dissection, hello--this was an era where medical students stole bodies from fresh graves. It wasn't pretty, but we wouldn't have the science and medicine we have today if 19th-century scientists hadn't been a little creepy. The fact that Cuvier willed that his own corpse be dissected after his death is evidence that he was simply that "type of person." I'm quite annoyed that Holmes has caused me to defend a guy I don't much care for.
Fascinating subject, mediocre writing. I'm hopeful I'll find a better book on Saartjie written by a qualified historian who's writing about the woman's life, rather than politicizing her.
All That Poses As Science Is Sometimes Much Less and Much Worse
I stumbled across this book in looking up the meaning of the term “Hottentot.” It tells the story of Saartjie Baartman, aka “The Hottentot Venus,” of her short life, her pre- and post-mortem exploitation, and how it took her over two hundred years to finally get home to South Africa. Anyone who thinks that racism has a scientific basis should read this book. By the end of it, the sophisticated early 19th-century Londoners and Parisians look like the gibbering apes afflicted with unbridled lechery. The author has researched her subject matter thoroughly and doesn’t miss a thing that should be said.
Fascinating and tragic story encapsulated in the title: the Real Life if the Hottentot Venus. A South African woman who was brought first london and then Paris in 1810 to be shown off as a circus animal. She became famous for her big butt and influenced the fashion style which became known as the bustle.
The story is sickening and amazing. The telling is scientific and sometimes cold. Would be so curious to know what really happened to this woman.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
It is horrible history, a story that needs to be told and heard. Rachel Holmes sums it up quite well exposing the social construct of race and the use of vulnerable individuals by scientists, politicians and pedlars for their personal gain. And as usual we never learn from history. She has probably sacrificed an imaginative narrative for factual accuracy, nevertheless it is a good read.
Review originally appeared in Rapport, September 2007. The English version is lifted from my website:
The story of Saartjie Baartman is both fascinating and tragic. Smuggled from the Cape when barely an adult in 1810, she became an exhibit in an England obsessed with freak shows. Eventually freed from this indignity by abolitionists, Baartman ended up in France, modelling for French scientists. She died in 1814, of a combination of illness and alcoholism, and, I am sure, the psychological effects of the past four years of her life.
I first came across her story in Stephen Gray’s volume of poetry, Hottentot Venus and Other Poems (1979), and her story has filtered through into more literature and art in more recent times. Newspaper readers will also remember the struggle over having her remains returned to South African soil from France, and her eventual interment in Hankey, near the Gamtoos, in August 2002.
For the most part, however, Baartman is a subject of academic study. From her days in France as subject of colonial racial anthropology to present histories of such colonial science and the history of the black body in European art, her story is well documented. But only so for academic audiences. Rachel Holmes’s book thus comes as a welcome popular history of Saartjie Baartman.
Baartman’s story starts in the Gamtoos Valley, where she is born in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. Named by the Khoisan, the Gamtoos area by then had also become a place of violent contest between colonists and indigenous people. But Holmes also sketches a frontier society with remarkable integration, noting from a journal of that time that “kraals and European habitations were mixed.”
Saartjie thus grows up through the first British occupation (1795-1803), with Khoisan and Xhosa allied to the British against the Dutch. As the British didn’t keep their promises of livestock and land to the Khoisan and Xhosa, the latter two groups rebelled, leading to a realignment between the British and Dutch. It is in this context that Baartman’s story really starts.
In 1807, on the night of her engagement, a commando raids the party. The men fight back, but most are killed, including Baartman’s father and her future husband. She is captured and marched to Cape Town. In Cape Town, she will eventually work for Hendrik Cesars, a “free black” in the employ of the British Staff Surgeon, Alexander Dunlop. These two men will eventually smuggle her out of Cape Town, planning to exhibit her as a scientific curiosity, and promising her a life of relative comfort.
From here, Holmes follows the ever-deepening tragedy of Saartjie Baartman’s life. The book is well-researched, adding fullness to her story and appealing to non-specialists with an interest in both Saartjie Baartman and South African history. While Holmes provides cultural and historical contexts, the book doesn’t get bogged down in too much such detail. It thus remains a readable account of Saartjie Baartman’s life as the story of an individual.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
This book comes in a 109 paged. It is good with Holmes trademark snipes at The Establishment, which are always excellent. It would have been an excellent book if it were even a 100 pages later with more focus on Baartman’s life in South Africa and a more detailed deconstruction of the political and racialised misogynistic abuse of Baartman’s body after her untimely death. I left this book wanting more.
This is an important book but Holmes’s biography of Eleanor Marx is better.
“African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus” by Rachel Holmes is a well-researched, factual account of an amazing, though distressing story. Saartjie Baartman, the woman who became known as the Hottentot Venus, was descended from the eastern Cape Khoisan people of South Africa. During the colonial period, she was taken to Britain in 1810 where she performed, playing a musical instrument called a ramkie, and danced and sang - but mainly was displayed to show off her anatomy consisting of large buttocks and elongated genital labia. In one quote, Saartjie was described as "a semiscientific ethnographic curiosity, [who] offered sexual tourism dressed up as education"
In 1814, she was taken to France, where she performed and posed in Paris in 1814 and 1815. She posed at the Museum of Natural History in Paris where men, in the interest of “science” could receive a " close-up view of the legendary somatic attributes of a Khoisan woman” On December 29, 1815, she died at the age of 26. After her death, she was dissected and “between 1822 and the 1850s, the keepers of the National Museum of Natural History placed Saartjie's skeleton, body cast, brain, and genitals on public display; and there they remained until the 1970s."
Nelson Mandela, as President of South Africa, demanded the return of her remains in 1994 and it took until 2002 for that to finally happen. This moving story is objectively told with detailed notes and citations, describing a very dark chapter in world history. While it could be longer and deeper, it provides just enough to tell the story.
Of particular interest is the description of legal maneuvering to justify this atrocity. Numerous legal issues are addressed in the book related to colonialism and slavery and involve Dutch, British, French, and international law. Although slavery in the Cape Colony was abolished in 1808, the Hottentot Proclamation, while offering some degree of protection to the Khoisan people, permitted indentured servitude. When Saartjie was in Britain, some parties attempted to secure her freedom, and had a writ of habeas corpus issued, followed by a trial in which the court found Saartjie “could voluntarily degrade herself for the price named.” In France, legal haggling surrounded her display and dissection, and it took an 8-year legal dance to finally transfer her remains.
The book is informative, enlightening even, and very thought-provoking. Although some opinion and political commentary are unavoidable in such an account, the author remained balanced, stuck to facts, and leaves it mostly to the reader to feel the impact of what had happened.
I can't remember how or when I got this book but I am pretty sure I got it for free (or nearly nothing) and the artwork on the cover had gotten my attention.
I grabbed this out of my stack of books to read and I wasn't sure whether or not I was going to finish it but I did. It's a relatively quick read and not a hugely exciting one but it is somewhat interesting.
I'm a huge fan of Grace Jones and I couldn't help but think of her when the author mentioned the Hottentot Venus' costumes and attitude. There are lots of parallels between Grace and Saartjie even though most of Grace's shenanigans are put-on.
But I had read that Jean Paul Goude was obsessed with Grace Jones and objectified her and tried to control her, solely based on her looks and sexual energy, same as the men who ended up controlling Saartjie.
There's even a photo shoot where Jean Paul Goude photographs Grace wearing kitschy African "native" wear, and one where Grace is popping a cork out of a champagne bottle and the liquid is arching way up over her head and expertly filling a glass balanced on her big (enhanced) behind!
But the difference between Saartjie and Grace, I think, is that Grace is in on the joke and is enjoying being objectified, in a way. She's not a shy woman. She's even appeared naked on stage in a cage, something the author almost describes as a scene out of Saartjie's world.
Even the image of Saartjie smoking a pipe and staring defiantly at her audience is something you can also find on a Grace Jones record cover. It's all about sexual intimidation and domination while "being captured by the game," all at the same time.
Well, I think it was this parallel to Grace Jones that kept me reading on; plus, I wanted to find out what happened to Saartjie in the end.
It's a sad ending. It's a sad story. The death of Saartjie in the book is anticlimactic. It's just like: Plop. She's dead. I guess I was expecting a bigger ending.
The story is interesting and I think it would make a great film. The book, however, was just so-so. The illustrations included are a big plus.
There still remains so much unknown about Saartije but if the book gave anything, it was solace that she is now in her final resting place in the country of her homeland. While exploited abroad, I find it so amusing that Europeans were so fixated on Saartije's assets that they deemed "savage" and primitive if the wild sexual Black woman yet now they can't wait to appropriate the same culture and make it their own. As was said in the book, Saartije would have laughed.
This book clearly shows the impact of pseudoscience, political , and financial exploitation that can be imposed upon a socioeconomic group. Saartjie Baartmann was definitely exploited by individuals with misogynistic as well as racist beliefs that have since been shown to be false. Sadly there are those who would still choose to believe in the notion of race and the pseudoscience that evolves out of racial categorization.
A nicely done history. I very much liked how the writer remained concise, focusing on Sarrtje's life and providing context without including tons of filler. A fascinating, very sad story that puts a human face on colonialism.
Excellent Rendition of what was possibly Saartjie's life although, heart wrenching towards the conclusion. The writer imposing her own political thoughts towards the end and trying to align her mission against the government stance, took away from the book what could have been a powerful ending.
"The illuminated auditorium enabled Saartjie to see her audience almost aw well as they could see her."
"All our defenders, our brothers, our lovers, all perished, and we unfortunate victims who did not die were tightly bound, and were taken away by the evildoers, far from our beloved forests, and driven, with a thousand insults, onto floating trees, where we saw nothing but the sea and the clouds."
"She saw African and Indian men in European suits; white women in brightly colored and precariously balanced silk turbans, ostrich plumes, and Indian shawls; children of all races in rags; and tripe stalls festooned with slick entrails, penny a cup."
"Bullock opened his first exhibit of diverse natural and artificial curiosities in Liverpool in 1795."
"Other popular freak shows in the area included "the Fasting Woman of Tetbury"; fifty-stone Danile Lambert, or Fat Dan, the fattest man who ever lived; Frenchman Claude Ambroise Seurat, "The Living Skeleton," conversely the thinnest; and nineteen-and-a-half-inch Caroline Crchami, the miniature "Sicilian Fairy."
"A month before he died, Old Q invited Saartjie to a dinner party at his lavish mansion at 138 and 139 Piccadilly, where he was said to bathe daily in a silver bath filled with milk."
"Andreas Vesalius, the father of anatomical dissection, believed that "the violation of the body would be the revelation of its truth."
4.5 stars. While in some instances the prose gets a little dry, and the author delves into politics, the reality is Saartje Baartman WAS used as a political symbol, probably more than she was appreciated as a living woman - in England, South Africa, France, and today, worldwide. She was taken (willingly?) from her homeland and fetishized for white Europeans who saw her to represent dark and dangerous African sexuality, with her big booty and (presumed) elongated labia, but she may not have been a helpless victim after all, as she is often portrayed.
Book jacket says the author divides her time between London and Cape Town, so was in the perfect position to do local research for most of the important events of Saartje's life, and the degree of research was impressive.
I loved getting the details about Saartjie's stage costume - including the fact that she was NOT nude, the in-depth look at the relationships in her life and her family background. If you are interested in this woman, based on a clip you've seen on TV or a story floating the internet, this book is well worth a read.
The story of the Saartjie Barrtman exhibited in England as the Hottentot Venus. A women from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, exploited by one of her own countrymen and a British showman. Even in death, her body was treated with disrespect. One would like to say events like this would never happen today, but unfortunately, the exploitation of the female body for financial gain occurs each and everyday. Woman hold the key to stopping it. We have the power, but do we know it? This woman only experienced peace in early childhood and hopefully in eternal life.
The casual reader might be put off by the slow start -- the author has to establish the historical base and lay out many details, BUT once into the story it quickly gets to the heart of the matter, exploitation, de facto or otherwise, of a black African female. Not a pretty topic, but when it's handled as it is here by a sympathetic writer it becomes a fascinating story and a memorial to the heroine, Saartjie Baartman.
The amount of subject matter was a little thin to justify a whole book, but it would make a good magazine article. There was this part near the end where they talked about women's body images, ideal body images and the irony of this woman's life and the fixation with her body type that was really interesting.