Hottentot Venus

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Hottentot Venus is the name given to Sarah Baartman, a South African woman sold into slavery during the early 19th century as a dancer in Great Britain.[1] The term "Hottentot" was used to describe the Khoikhoi people, a tribe in South Africa near the Cape Region, the southernmost tip of the continent.[2] The Roman goddess Venus was used to objectify the obscure feminine characteristics, such as her larger curves and elongated labia. "Hottentot Venus" is the equivalent of a stage name.

Hendrik Cesars, the manager of Sarah Baartman, was the initial creator of the Hottentot Venus concept. He sold her into slavery at age 21, with the promise that she would get rich and her life would return to the way it was. Alexander Dunlop, the owner of Cesars, originally persuaded both into giving up Baartman's freedom, and creating the image of the Hottentot Venus.[3] From that point, the African icon was traded and exchanged, sent all over Europe, each time with different owners. The image of the Hottentot Venus sparked controversy in many countries and brought attention to the Civil Rights movement in London. Due to negative attention and public outcry, Baartman's employment was extended and moved to France. She was sold to animal trainer S. Réaux who forced Hottentot Venus into far more shows for longer hours. Essentially Rèaux's harsh labour was what ultimately led to her early death.

Social and Political Reform[edit]

Following Baartman's performances in London, the Slave Trade Act 1807 was passed. The Slave Trade Act 1807 abolished the slave trade in Britain but not slavery itself. This created a scandal, causing the African Association to conduct a campaign for Baartman's freedom. However, Baartman had two options: return to South Africa, where her family lived, or stay in England, where she received profit and some freedom. Eventually, Baartman journeyed to France in 1810 and was handed over to a predatory showman. During that time, France was considered a forward and liberal country except for the instances of racism towards Caribbeans, Africans, and Asians. Due to her sexual traits, Baartman became the object of scientific and sexual interest.[4]

Strides in Feminism[edit]

The life of Sarah Baartman as the Hottentot Venus impacts the issues of colonialism, sexuality, race, and class. Colonialism, or to be more specific, exploitation colonialism, led Sarah Baartman to become the Hottentot Venus. This slave act of colonialism, which became more of a show business exposed sexuality in a very different way in Great Britain and France, for the body of Sarah Baartman was not your "average" body. It was her body which caused her popularity, however, the color of her skin made an impact as well, which further addresses race. Race and sexuality also coincide to the creation of the offensive term "Hottentot Venus." Race is also emphasised through the concept of class. Sarah Baartman's location on the class spectrum was at the bottom of the list, for she was a woman and black, which makes her closest to a primate as well as more lustful and devise in their sexual expression.[5] Thus, class as gender is also expressed. Therefore, each factor evokes the creation of the Hottentot Venus, Venus (mythology) which conveys the Roman goddess who is the embodiment of love and sexuality further exemplifies the name of "Hottentot Venus." As a result, depending on sexuality, race, and class and in this case the spread of colonialism, it can be seen that society is judged through these factors which can play a part in the creation of an offensive term like the Hottentot Venus.[6]

The 'Hottentot Venus' Seen As a Commodity[edit]

Hottentot Venus
Hottentot Venus Poster.png
Baartman's exhibition poster in London

According to Sadiah Qureshi's article, "Displaying Sarah Baartman The 'Hottentot Venus'", many representations of the Khoikhoi people (such as Sarah Baartman) were used to illustrate them as wild and savage. These depictions effectively demoted them from human status and made them ape-like instead. This appropriation and forms of categorisation is what led to African flora, fauna, and people to be seen as commodities by the white colonist. Qureshi writes, "Sara Baartman arrived on England's shores within this traffic of animals, plants and people destined for display as objects representing colonial expansion and as a means of economic gain; she served as both an imperial success and a prized specimen of the 'Hottentot'".[7] Baartman was therefore seen as nothing more than an object put up for display; she was subsequently the physical representation of British activity in the cape and symbolised their conquests of African territory. Baartman was a "rare live specimen of the exotic"; she was of value to men like Hendrick Cezar, who showed her in the London entertainment scene which further emphasised a "culture of display".[8]

Shortly after Baartman arrived in London in 1810, the public was invited to view the Hottentot Venus for only two shillings. Baartman wore a tight, skin-toned garment, giving the appearance that she was actually naked.[9] The show took place upon "a stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper, and exhibited like a wild beast; being obliged to walk, stand, or sit as he ordered".[10] Baartman was put into the category of human curiosity and performed alongside other people who were physically abnormal according to Western standards. The association between ethnological exhibits and humans with an anatomical curiosity was not uncommon as they were often exhibited together.[11] According to Qureshi, these exhibits blurred the boundaries between humans and animals. Like exhibits that display animals, the Hottentot Venus was shown as a supposed representation of her nation and race.

Political Relevance of the Early 1800s[edit]

The exhibition of Sarah Baartman as the Hottentot Venus came at a time when slavery in the British Empire had not yet been abolished. This meant that Baartman had come at a time when, as Qureshi states, "[the] abolitionist issue was gathering strength and pro-slavery campaigners were actively creating an image of the Black that erased ethnic differences between culturally diverse black peoples so as to lend force to their political agenda."[12] The combination of Baartman's arrival with the turmoil of the abolitionist issue created an exhibit that was politically relevant to the people of London during that time. Not only were patrons interested in seeing the ethnological exhibit, but they were also curious to see an exhibit of political relevance, especially on the heels of Baartman's court case,[13] which established her non-slave status.


  1. ^ Schiebinger, Londa (1999). Has Feminism Changed Science?. First Harvard University Press. 
  2. ^ "Khoi & San People". 
  3. ^ Schiebinger, Londa (1999). Has Feminism Changed Science?. First Harvard University Press. 
  4. ^ Elkins, Caroline (14 January 2007). "African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ Fields, Jill (2006). "From Black Venus to Blonde Venus: The meaning of black lingerie". Women's History Review 15. 
  6. ^ Schiebinger, Londa (1999). Has Feminism Changed Science. First Harvard University Press. 
  7. ^ Quresh, Sadiah (June 2004). "Displaying Sarah Baartman, The 'Hottentot Venus'". History of Science 42. 
  8. ^ Quresh, Sadiah (June 2004). "Displaying Sarah Baartman, The 'Hottentot Venus'". History of Science 42. 
  9. ^ "Court Records". Strother 43 (op. cit. (ref. 5)). 
  10. ^ Chambers, Robert (1863). The book of days: A miscellany of popular antiquities, in connection with the calendar 2. p. 621. 
  11. ^ Quresh, Sadiah (June 2004). "Displaying Sarah Baartman, The 'Hottentot Venus'". History of Science 42. 
  12. ^ Quresh, Sadiah (June 2004). "Displaying Sarah Baartman, The 'Hottentot Venus'". History of Science 42. 
  13. ^ Scully, Pamela (2008). "Race and Erasure:Sara Baartman and Hendrik Cesar in Cape Town and London". History of British History 47.