HOTTENTOT VENUS: The South African Sarah Baartman “Scientific Curiosity” Story

HOTTENTOT VENUS: The South African Sarah Baartman “Scientific Curiosity” Story


Saartjie “Saartje” “Sara” “Sarah” Baartman (before 1790 – 29 December 1815) (also spelled Bartman, Bartmann, Baartmen) was the most well known of at least two Khoikhoi women who, due to their large buttocks (steatopygia), were exhibited as freak show attractions in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus. 

She was born in 1789* at the Gamtoos river in what is now known as the Eastern Cape. She belonged to the cattle-herding Gonaquasub group of the Khoikhoi.

An indigenous Khoisan woman, Sarah Baartman worked as a slave in Cape Town South Africa when in 1810, she was discovered by a British doctor, William Dunlop, who persuaded her to travel to England with him and told her that she could earn a fortune by allowing foreigners to look at her body. He wanted to make money by putting Baartman on display as a “scientific curiosity”.

Rumoured to be a slave brought to England against her will, Saartjie was an orphaned Khoisan maidservant born in 1789 on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. She was 21 years old when she was smuggled from Cape Town to London. Her employer, a free black man named Hendrik Cesars, was manservant to a British Army medical officer named Alexander Dunlop. Dunlop persuaded Cesars that Saartjie had lucrative potential as entertainment and a scientific curiosity in England, which had a thriving stage trade in human and scientific curiosities. A woman from the so-called “Hottentot tribe”, who, legend held,  was a voluptuous woman with large breasts and unusually had an amazing large buttocks and  strangely elongated labia, common among her people of Khoisan decent , might provide an exceptional draw. In the early 1800s Europeans arrogantly obsessed with their own superiority, enjoyed proving that Black people and others were inferior and oversexed. Baartman did not know she was to become their favorite case study. Saartjie was persuaded: Dunlop, she said, had “promised to send her back rich”.

Dunlop promised he’d share the money they made. But she was sold as a freak show, exhibited at circuses led by an animal trainer, at times caged and forced to behave like a wild animal. Billed as the Hottentot Venus, Saartjie first performed in Piccadilly on September 24 1810. Dressed in a figure-hugging body stocking, beadwork, feathers and face-paint, she danced, sang and played African and European folk songs on her ramkie, forerunner to the tin-can guitar. Slung over her costume was a voluminous fur cloak (kaross). Enveloping her from neck to feet, it was an African version of the corn-gold tresses of Botticelli’s Venus – and every inch of its luxuriant, curled hair was equally suggestive.

‘Hottentot’ was a name given to people with cattle, a reference to her African tribe. Venus is the Roman goddess of love. But Sarah was no object of admiration or adoration. She was treated as a spectacle, an object of leering and abuse. Londoners poked at her bottom as she stood onstage. They stared, touched and laughed.

To London audiences, she was a fantasy made flesh, uniting the imaginary force of two powerful myths: Hottentot and Venus. ‘Hottentot’ was a name given to people with cattle, a reference to her African tribe, signified all that was strange, disturbing and – possibly – sexually deviant. And Venus invoked a cultural tradition of lust and love.  Almost overnight, London was overtaken by Saartjie mania. Within a week, she went from being an anonymous immigrant to one of the city’s most talked-about celebrities. Her image became ubiquitous: it was reproduced on bright posters and penny prints, and she became the favoured subject of caricaturists and cartoonists.


Saartjie’s instant celebrity owed much to a coincidence between the Georgian fascination with bottoms, the size of the derrière of Lord Grenville, and the British tradition of visual satire. The aristocratic Grenville family were famed for their huge bums. The nation was rife with speculation that Grenville would become prime minister and his Whig coalition – known as the broad-bottoms or the bottomites – take over parliament. An engraving by William Heath depicts Grenville dressed as the Hottentot Venus. In another, by George Cruikshank from 1816, Saartjie’s profile is compared with that of the Prince Regent.


This disturbing painting depicts the “Hottentot Venus’s” life viewed through a historical lens. The Hottentot Venus, or Saartjie Baartman (1790 – 1815), lived in the early 19th century. Baartman was from what is now the eastern cape of South Africa and was paraded around Western Europe as the Hottentot Venus. She was featured on display in an exhibit as an exotic specimen. Artist: Frederick Mpuuga (pinterest)


A month after Saartjie’s show opened, the abolitionists, convinced she was brought to England and forced to perform against her will, began a High Court lawsuit on her behalf that electrified the English public and press. When asked whether she would prefer to go to Bible school and then return home, or stay in England performing with a contract and a salary, Saartjie said, “Stay here.” Unable to prove that she performed unwillingly, the case collapsed. Her choices were limited: a return to servitude in colonised South Africa, or exploitation in free England. The Hottentot Venus show went on.

“Three Graces” by Wm. Heath (London, 1810)


Saartjie arrived in France in 1814, a recognised icon preceded by her reputation as a scantily clad totem goddess. Napoleonic Paris greeted her as a celebrity. In France, as in Britain, her image proliferated – with a significant difference: where English representations exaggerated the size of her buttocks, French portrayals show attempts to be more true to life.

In 1810, Saartjie Baartman was brought to Europe from South Africa to be displayed as a sexual freak and example of the inferiority of the black race. Now the remains of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ are finally being returned to her homeland. Chris McGreal reports: (pinterest)

In the spring of 1815, Saartjie posed for three days as a life model for a panel of Europe’s leading Enlightenment scientists, naturalists, and staff painters at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. Georges Cuvier, Henri de Blainville and Étienne Saint-Hilaire led the scientific team. Resident artists Léon de Wailly, Nicolas Huet and Jean-Baptiste Berré produced delicate watercolour portraits of her figure. As well as integral to the “scientific” project, these illustrations became collectible popular art, copied and sold in great quantity. De Wailly’s tactful portrait – used as her official image by the ANC – is drawn with evocative, poignant sensibility. In this image Saartjie stands in the antique pose of the Cnidian Venus, so beloved of Renaissance sculptors; a figure that would reappear later in the 19th century in the Orientalist grandes odalisques of Ingres and Renoir.

She spent four years in London, and then moved to Paris, where she continued her degrading round of shows and nearly naked exhibitions.  She was forced to show off her large buttocks and her outsized genitalia at circus sideshows, museums, bars and universities. She was a celebrity. In Paris she attracted the attention of medical students and French scientists, including Georges Cuvier. In his notes, Cuvier said Baartman was very intelligent, had an excellent memory and she could speak Dutch. He described her movements as monkey-like. Cuvier, who was at the center of an eminent school of social anthropologists, believed Baartman was the missing link, the highest form of animal life and the lowest form of human life.

No one knows if Dunlop ever paid Baartman for her “services”, but if he did, it wasn’t enough to buy herself out of the life she was living. When the Parisians got tired of the Baartman show, she turned to alcohol and prostitution. Saartjie died at the end of 1815, aged just 26,died of syphilis and possibly loneliness and a broken heart. But her story didn’t end there.

Baartman’s body cast and skeleton, which were displayed for 200 years after her death in French museums.

Indignity followed her in death: within 48 hours, Cuvier dissected her corpse in the name of science and immortalized her as a biological specimen. He made a plaster cast of her body, then removed her skeleton and, after cutting out her brain and genitals, pickled them and displayed them in bottles at the Musee de l’Homme, a museum in Paris. Her genitalia and other body parts were on public display for 160 years until they were finally removed from view in 1974. Cuvier, the father of both comparative anatomy and palaeontology, conducted the post-mortem examination. Plaster casts were taken of her body. Once the whole figure was integrated, “sculptors and artists finished the lines to the mould, polished the model surface with oil of turpentine, and then skin, vessels were painted on; the whole covered in a coat of clear varnish”. For nearly two centuries these relics were kept in the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, on public display. Posthumously imprisoned in Paris, Saartjie’s violated body became one of Europe’s most analysed specimens. From these lifeless and fragile remnants, European scientists manufactured monstrous, crackpot pseudo-scientific theories proposing biological differences between human groups.


The body of Saartjie Baartman, better known as the Hottentot Venus, has had greater influence on the iconography of the female body in European art and visual culture than any other African woman of the colonial era. Saartjie, a South African showgirl in the early 19th century, was a small, beautiful woman, with an irresistible bottom. Of a build unremarkable in an African context, to some western European eyes she was extraordinary. Today, she is celebrated as bootylicious.


First celebrity known for her bubble butt

Claiming right of possession to Saartjie’s remains and honouring her as a heroic national ancestor was the first act of international cultural reparation made on behalf of free South Africa. The French people and politicians supported her repatriation, but museologists raised ridiculous objections that she was still a viable object of “scientific” study and French patrimony. Henri de Lumley, director of the Musée de l’Homme, claimed insultingly that she would be “safer” and better preserved “cherished in the home of liberty, fraternity and equality, than in South Africa”.

Saartjie was not only the African woman most frequently represented in racially marked British and French visual culture, she also had less immediately visible influences on western art. In an age when art and science were commonly regarded as bedfellows, her image appeared in a proliferation of media, from popular to high culture. Saartjie was depicted in scientific and anatomical drawings, in playbills and aquatint posters, in cartoons, paintings and sculpture. Both during her life and after her death, caricaturists Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank made her the subject of works typifying London life and the Napoleonic era. Saartjie’s body cast was one of the inspirations for Matisse’s revolutionary restructuring of the female body in The Blue Nude (1907), prompted by African sculpture and conceived, as Hugh Honour argues, “as an ‘African’ Venus: that her skin is not black is hardly of significance in view of his attitude to colour”.

South Africa never forgot Saartjie. The end of apartheid was the crucial turning point in her afterlife. White-minority rule ended in South Africa in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president.  , when the African National Congress achieved the country’s transition to non-racial democracy, President Mandela raised the matter of Saartjie with President Mitterrand during his first state visit to South Africa. Supporting the long-running campaign for the return of Saartjie’s remains initiated by the anthropologist Professor Philip Tobias, Mandela told Mitterrand that it was time for her to come home.

In 1995 a campaign began to “Bring back the Hottentot Venus”. The request to repatriate to South Africa the remains of a Khoisan woman held at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris initiated a charged political row between the French and South African governments. When the African National Congress achieved the country’s transition to non-racial democracy, President Mandela on behalf of the South African people raised the matter of Saartjie with President Mitterrand during his first state visit to South Africa, and subsequently to Jacques Chirac, for the return of the woman’s remains to her ancestors for a humane burial. The request has taken eight years to fulfill. The woman at the centre of this political bargaining is now called Sara Baartman. Unfortunately, no record of her original name exists and she is better known by her epithet, the ‘Hottentot Venus’, to her contemporaries, present-day historians, and political activists. Baartman is, even after nearly two centuries, amongst the most famous human ethnological exhibits. Displayed in England and France in the early nineteenth century as a curiosity, her breasts, buttocks and hypertrophied labia aroused considerable interest, prurient and scientific.

Saartjie’s remains became central to the ongoing debate over the return of the cultural heritage, plundered from formerly colonised nations, that fills European museums. Responding to the hysteria that Saartjie’s return would open the floodgates to similar requests, Ben Ngubane, minister of culture, wryly observed that South Africa was unlikely to request the return of all its plundered patrimony, as there isn’t room in Africa to store it. Brigitte Mabandla, deputy minister of culture, pointed out that: “The end of colonialism is tied to the return of Africa’s cultural heritage … Scholars argue that 200-year-old remains should be classified as ordinary artifacts, and tools for research, and that there is no need to attach emotions to them. This is a fallacy. Europe is littered with ancient heritage, and there is a lot of passion associated with heritage by Europeans themselves.”

It took a further eight years and the intervention of Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, before Saartjie’s remains were released. In May 2002 they were flown back to South Africa, and on August 9, National Women’s Day, Saartjie was honoured with a state funeral in the Gamtoos River Valley, her birthplace.  Mbeki gave her funeral speech. Today, Saartjie Baartman is modern South Africa’s most revered female historical modern cultural icon of the colonial era. The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children opened in Cape Town in 1999, as a refuge for survivors of domestic violence.

Far from outlandish or unfamiliar to the western eye, the evolving historical conventions of the female nude in European art are apparent in many representations of the Hottentot Venus, as is her influence. Saartjie’s death in Paris coincided with the repatriation to Italy of the famous Roman statue known as the Medici Venus. Plundered from the Palazzo Uffizi by Napoleon in 1802, this celebrated Hellenistic statue was crated up and sent back to Florence in December 1815. Fleet Street, appreciating the coincidence, went for the bottom line, capturing the Platonic assertion that there are two Venuses in western culture, one celestial, the other vulgar:

I have come to wrench you away –
away from the poking eyes
of the man-made monster
who lives in the dark
with his clutches of imperialism
who dissects your body bit by bit
who likens your soul to that of Satan
and declares himself the ultimate god!
I have come to soothe your heavy heart
I offer my bosom to your weary soul
I will cover your face with the palms of my hands
I will run my lips over lines in your neck
I will feast my eyes on the beauty of you
and I will sing for you
for I have come to bring you peace.

–an excerpt from “A Poem for Sarah Baartman” by Diana Ferrus (a Khoisan woman)


The nature of Baartman’s story, and the power of the racial and gender politics invested in its retelling, has led — not surprisingly, and perhaps inevitably — to modern writers and artists appropriating her as a focal point for discourses upon race, gender, empire, and specifically Western representations of black female sexuality. The attempt to reclaim her physically is metaphorically paralleled by the movement to reclaim her image, as black artists are beginning to explore representations of their own sexuality in the modern media through work evoking the infamous breasts and buttocks.

The burgeoning literature spawned by the fascination with Baartman’s story ensures her a continued fame; yet it is, in many senses, deeply unsatisfactory. The overwhelming analytical emphasis on race and gender has led to relatively little attention being focused upon the material processes involved in Baartman’s objectification, exhibition, and politicization, making much of the literature appear poorly historicized or preoccupied with political ends.

Saartjie’s legacy has been to carry the burden of racist representation for colonial and imperialist history. Visual representations of her body are fraught with the negative consequences of reproducing offensive iconography. These images persist as products of a white society whose imposed perceptions damaged and subordinated the lives, consciousness and body-image of millions of people. The history of the Hottentot Venus raises vexing questions about intention and audience when reproducing racist representations, but it also highlights the dangers of censorship. Images of Saartjie are part of her story: they will offend, but no good ever came of locking pictures in the attic. Images of subjected slaves kneeling, or celebrating their release, were unthinkingly reproduced long after abolition. Sander Gilman’s frequently cited work is amongst the most explicit in linking Baartman’s exhibition solely to interest in her sexuality; unfortunately its emphasis upon female genitalia and use of explicit visual material with little supporting discussion can appear voyeuristic. However, the most problematic feature of the current literature is its treatment of race as an historically timeless concept and its role in the construction of deviance in the early nineteenth century. The dominant position currently implies that not only was there one image of the black, but that Baartman was representative of this image.

It’s striking that Saartjie was never shown in a classic slave image. This is not to propose some fatuous notion of a more liberal intention by the white men who depicted her: these men, and their racialised perceptions, were products of their time. Saartjie’s body was subjected to indignity and exaggeration, but there has been less careful reflection on the ways in which she subsequently influenced the emergence of the modernist female form, or of how she might be celebrated now, as she is in African and transatlantic black popular music and body culture. The Baartman’s story continues to inspire the powerful ideology surrounding her legacy and recognise her influence on British culture.

· The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman (Born 1789 – Buried 2002) by Rachel Holmes is published by Bloomsbury. Portraits, People & Abolition, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, London WC2. Tel: 020 7306 0055





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