The Sarah Baartman story is not a pretty one, nor does it have a happy ending. The brief, sad life of the poorly-dubbed, “Hottentot Venus,” (a moniker that's no longer used as its deep racism has been universally acknowledged) was fraught with blatant exploitation, racism, and abuse. A Khoisan woman born in 1789 in South Africa, Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman fell into bad luck early in life, when she was smuggled into England to perform in human exhibitions – or, to put it more bluntly, freak shows.
From there, Baartman became a tragic sensation across the UK and France, performing scantily clad in a cage while the sheltered masses of Northern Europe gasped and prodded at her “unusual” physical proportions and unfamiliar skin color. Baartman was made out to be exotic to the point of otherworldly – that is, if she were from a world vastly inferior to that of her audience.
So, who was the Hottentot Venus, and why should we still care? Some 200 years later, Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman retains relevance as an important symbol, especially in the ongoing climate of extreme racial tension in the United States. As recently as 2014, Kim Kardashian’s “Break The Internet” cover for Paper Magazine received backlash from all sides, with many critics arguing that the cover directly evoked images of Baartman with its focus on Kardashian's otherworldly derriere. The implications raised by contemporary ties to Baartman’s life call for a closer look at a lesson that should have been long-since learned.
First Off, It’s Sarah, Or Saartjie – Anything But The “Hottentot”
Even Sarah’s name (whose “real” Khoisan name can’t seem to be recovered) is steeped in racist history. Saartjie is the Dutch diminutive of “Sarah,” translating roughly to “Little Sarah,” a designation that can be seen as endearing – or condescending and diminishing – depending on the context. Her stage name, the “Hottentot Venus,” refers to the language her tribe spoke, formally known as Khoekhoe, or “Nama.”
In the age of European colonization in Africa, Dutch colonists referred to the Khoekhoe language as “Hottentot,” a mocking approximation of the clicking and chirping tones of the language that translates roughly to “stammerer,” and yet another way to paint indigenous Africans as savage and inferior. “Venus” refers to the Greek goddess of fertility, a stab at what Europeans deemed as Sarah's overdeveloped feminine features – be it her rear, her breasts, and even her genitalia. Today, the term “Hottentot” is recognized as highly offensive and racist, and it is no longer used to describe any people of the Khoisan tribes.
A Black And White Male Duo Took Baartman To England
Saartjie was smuggled into England by her master, a free black man by the name of Hendrik Cesars, and British military doctor Alexander Dunlop, two enterprising conspirators that saw an opportunity to make some money off the young Khoi woman’s figure and skin color.
Technically, Baartman wasn't Cesars's slave (she was his house servant and wet nurse to his wife), but she came into their servitude when her partner was killed by a Dutch colonist, and she didn't have many other options. The two men built up the possibility of earning money in Europe and the luck of said opportunity, the likes of which she would never find as a house servant in South Africa. Although she was illiterate, she signed a contract with Dunlop and Cesars saying she would perform of her own will.
The two were the first to present London with “The Hottentot Venus.” In Piccadilly Circus, they placed her in a cage, where she donned impossibly tight garments and full “African” regalia, including feathers, beads, and a pipe. Her rear was on display, and she was allegedly asked to dance or even bend over for the crowds, so they could get their money’s worth.
Baartman's Unusually Large Backside Drew Crowds, But It Was Actually The Result Of A Medical Condition
Baartman’s audiences largely gathered for a glimpse at her substantial buttocks – the feature that won her the most attention, as well as fueled much talk regarding her supposed hyper-fertility and "primitive gene pool." However, what her appreciators failed to mention – or even understand – was that Baartman’s figure was natural in her native South Africa. In the Khoisan tribes, the phenomenon of steotopygia, or the accumulation of fat on the rear and tapering down the legs is very common, normal even, and recognized as a marker of health and beauty in Khoisan culture. Steotopygia is also often associated with the elongated labia, another physical trait common among Khoisan women and equally taboo to Europeans.
To 19th-century Europeans, all of this illustrated stark physical differences between themselves and Africans, further reinforcing the growing racist discourse of the time and creating a wild exoticism around the African female body.
Turns Out, Big Butts Were, Well, Big In 19th-Century England
Part of Baartman’s success is attributed to England’s hype surrounding big behinds in the early 1800s. This was largely political – the Whig party, literally referred to as the Big Bottoms, Broad Bottoms, or Bottomites, (a namesake referencing their leader Lord Grenville’s massive backside), was poised to take over Parliament in the case of George III’s decline.
As bizarre as it may seem, England was rife with rear-end jokes, metaphors, and comments, and Baartman’s proportionally huge buttocks made a perfectly timed landing among all the hysteria. All of this worked in the favor of boosting Baartman’s popularity nearly overnight– she quickly became the subject of cartoons, prints, and posters.
In Britain’s notoriously satirical manner, several caricatures were produced showing potential Parliament leader Grenville dressed as the Hottentot Venus, as well as the two figures comparing rears, side by side. However, the clownish references between the two didn't quite generate positive attention for Baartman; rather, they reinforced cartoonish, mocking approximations of the young African woman.