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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Racism and Sexism at its Most Outrageous!

La Belle Hottentot (The Hottentot Venus)
Early nineteenth century print courtesy of Wikipedia.

"Hottentot" was the name given to the Khoikhoi tribe in South Africa by the Europeans who went there.  It comes from the Dutch word for "stutter", which is what their language sounded like to Europeans.  This tribe was physically distinct in that the women had large buttocks which jutted out like an appendage triangle - the top perpendicular to the ground, curving toward the legs in an approximate forty-five degree angle.  Of more prurient interest were the elongated labia which could sometimes be seen while the women were standing nude.

Print of an exhibition from 1814.
Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Saartjie Baartman (Sarah Bartman anglicised) was a Khoikhoi woman born in the eastern Cape of South Africa some time prior to 1790.  The exact date of her birth and her birth name is unknown.  She was a slave owned by Dutch farmers near Cape Town when the brother of her owner suggested she travel to England for exhibition.  She was promised that she would become wealthy.  She left for London in 1810.

Caricature of Baartman from the early 19th century.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

She was paraded around England as the "Hottentot Venus", shaking her booty and revealing her genitalia, led by her "keeper", and sitting, standing, or walking at his command.  Although many flocked to see her, it caused a scandal.  The Slave Trade Act had passed in Parliament in 1807, which abolished slave trade in the British Empire but not slavery.  Abolitionists petitioned for her release.  She was questioned before a court, and stated that she was doing this willingly, and for half the profits.  She claimed she was not answering under duress, but eyewitness reports from her exhibitions suggest otherwise.  The court ruled she had entered into a contract of her own free will, although it is doubtful that there ever was a contract.

Ms. Baartman was sold to a Frenchman who took her to France.  (Ironically, she was born at the time of the French revolution whose ideals were liberty and equality.)   She was exhibited by an animal trainer under even harsher conditions. She was painted in the nude, examined and painted scientifically.  Georges Cuvier, head keeper of the menagerie at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle (founded during the French Revolution) and Napoleon's surgeon general, was intrigued by her, one of the many French naturalists who visited her.  To them she was evidence of the superiority of the white race. 

The Hottentot Venus in the Salon of the Duchess of Berry
by Sebastien Coeure, 1830
Once the novelty of her exhibitions wore off, she became a prostitute and an alcoholic.  She died in 1815, at the approximate age of 26, of an undetermined inflammatory ailment, possibly pneumonia, but some reports suggest syphilis.  An autopsy was conducted and published, and a cast was made of her body.  Her brain and genitalia were removed, preserved, and presented for public viewing in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris along with her skeleton.  They were displayed until 1974 (her body casting until 1976), when they were put into storage.  

The return of her remains was advocated since the 1940s, but the demands became urgent after Stephen Jay Gould wrote about her in the 1980s.  In 1994, President Nelson Mandela formally requested that they be returned.  The French National Assembly, after years of legal debates, honored the request on March 5, 2002. Still viewing her as a "thing", they worried that releasing her remains would lead to returning plundered artefacts from all over the world.  She now rests on Vergaderingskop, a hill in the town of Hankey in the Gamtoos River Valley.

Keep in mind that at the time the study of "science" included correlating personality traits and mental dispositions with physical attributes.  Think phrenology or physiognomy (the study of bumps on the head, and the study of facial features, respectively), the pseudosciences that were popular at that time.  

(Physiognomy has its roots in 5th century BCE Greece, and was widely accepted and taught in universities in the middle ages.)  Racial theorists equated moral and mental status with anatomy, and crania were often measured as a sign of intelligence.  This does not excuse what was done to Ms. Baartman, but may help explain how it came about, and more importantly, why it was tolerated by supposedly civil and educated people.  The aristocracy had their own private showings. 

De humana physiognomia libri IIII
by Giambattista della Porta, 1586.
Image courtesy of National Library of Medicine

In Ms. Baartman's case, Cuvier and his contemporaries believed her genitalia was proof of the African woman's "primitive sexual appetite".  Her racial characteristics were displayed as proof of her supposed sexual proclivities, among other things, and besides her buttocks and genitalia, included her skin color (described as "yellowish", not black), nappy hair, and facial features.  

Image courtesy of this site.

The practice of parading and exhibiting people, particularly people of color or "otherness", is an old one.  The Romans loved it.  Columbus brought back Arawak natives to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and Barnum and Bailey's circus had traveling shows that exhibited "savages", "natives", and "freaks".  World expositions also displayed "other" peoples, even having them perform dances, ceremonies, and sometimes even pretending to live their daily lives, albeit on the fairgrounds.  This was an attribute of western colonialism, attempting to promote the idea that non-white cultures needed western civilization thus western domination.  

Saartjie Baartman was not the only Khoikhoin woman treated this way, just the most famous one.  Apparently autopsy skills were not evolved enough to determine the way she died, since it seemed that enough time was spent, and much care taken in examining her body, to write reports about it and present them to colleagues.  I also could find nothing on Khoikhoin men, and if they had distinctive genitalia and large buttocks as well.

Marker at gravesite of Saartjie Baartman.
Image courtesy of this site.

We'd like to think that we are beyond this kind of treatment of another human being.  We'd like to think we are beyond racism and sexism.  But we have to ask ourselves if we truly are.  There are atrocities against human beings committed every day somewhere in the world, and to not acknowledge them is in a way being a party to them, or at the least condoning them.  A better world can only be made up of better people, and the struggle to do the right thing is a daily one, regardless of accepted social trends.



  1. I'm so impressed. You know things that matter and you are presenting them in the way that respects us all. They need you in the trenches, where the best of us needs to save us all with a new conversation.

    This is how we should be learning from History. I really am impressed.

    You might be interested in that I'm asking myself questions that you've brought another face of into view. It might feel as though you're just stuck in your own head, sometimes, but you're putting out the good stuff.

    Thanks, M

  2. Thank you so much, MsM! It's always nice to get feedback, and I am so glad you are asking yourself questions - we all need to. Respecting others is not something we can just agree to and it's done. It is constant and hard work, but makes one a better person and makes one feel better as well.

  3. William Somerville, a British naval surgeon serving at the Cape (1799-1802) who sometimes treated Khoi women during pregnancies, noted that they were extremely reluctant - every bit as much as other women - to expose their genitals, which they always kept covered by a small apron-like garment.

    While Bartman was in England newspapers reported she wore a shockingly figure-hugging dress of thin fabric, designed to be as revealing as possible without actually outraging public decency. But she was not exhibited naked. (She also wore some traditional Khoi robes, but they weren't enough to keep her warm in England and she clearly felt the cold.)

    When she was in France, she at one time agreed to undress to allow some scientists to observe her body and even make measurements - but she would not remove the covering apron which concealed her genitals. She flatly refused this, even when directly offered money. She adhered to her own standards of what was decent.

    I'm not trying to imply the usual attitude to Baartman during her life was other than disgusting, or that the abuse of her remains after her death was not disgracefully racist. Nevertheless, it's unfair to her to suggest she was just some shrinking, abject figure cowering in a cage. Charles Matthew, an English actor who attended her show in London, saw an insolent woman poke Baartman in the behind to see if she genuinely was the shape she appeared to be: it took all Hendrik Cezar's authority to stop Bartman using her fists to teach that woman a lesson in manners. She seems to have spoken two languages (Khoi and Dutch) with perfect fluency, and was able to get by in two more (English and French). I doubt she ever got the "half the profits of her exhibition" she was promised, but she evidently supported herself successfully for years in societies which were completely alien to her. Nobody gives her credit for any of this - we only ever hear of Baartman the helpless victim. Had she been a white woman negotiating Khoi society with equal success, she'd have been hailed as a great explorer.