XVIII: The Venus of Hottentot

No need for fancy titles here — the name of the subject is weird enough by itself.

The Venus of Hottentot is a person, for those of you who were super confused. “Venus” refers to the Roman goddess of beauty and love, while “Hottentot” is an archaic name (now considered somewhat offensive) for the Khoi people of southern Africa.

In that case, who in the world was the Venus of Hottentot?

Her name was Saartije Baartman, and when people weren’t calling her by this rather offensive nickname, they called her Sarah. She was born sometime before 1790 (probably 1789) somewhere near the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. After being orphaned at a young age, she became a slave of a Dutch farmer in British Cape Town. Sometime before 1810, she met a man named Alexander Dunlop, a British military surgeon who raked in a little extra cash on the side by supplying exotic animals to British freak shows. In 1810, under Dunlop’s encouragement, Sarah left for London to become a sideshow performer.

Hold on a second. Sarah wasn’t an exotic animal. She was just a young African woman, nothing freaky, nothing the British hadn’t seen before.

Not quite.

Sarah, like many Khoisan women, had two very unique physical conditions: steatopygia and macronympha, that made her a rare and fascinating sight for the European public.

Steatopygia, or the accumulation of unusual amounts of fat in the buttocks, is diagnosed by the existence of a ninety-degree angle between the spine and the top of the buttocks. It is genetic, and is extremely common among Khoisan women and occasionally seen among Khoisan men or Bantu peoples. Macronympha is a genetic enlargement of the female external genitalia, also common in Khoisan women. Sarah never allowed her macronympha to be displayed during her life.

Because of these unusual physical characteristics, Sarah was considered quite an oddity to Europeans. She was exhibited extensively in London as the “Hottentot Venus” — the epitome of a beautiful Khoisan woman. In 1814, Sarah was sold to a Frenchman, and she continued to by displayed by him in France.

Throughout her life and afterwards, there was always great debate over whether Sarah was being exhibited of her own free will. She was interviewed in Dutch, the only language she spoke, on several occasions, but she always stated that she had come to Europe willingly, she was willing to be on display in nothing but a loincloth, she was not being abused, and she understood that the money she received was only a small fraction of the profits. However, it was still believed that none of this was true, since during her exhibitions, it was obvious to bystanders that Sarah was being both coerced and abused.

Sadly, the abuse did not stop after Sarah’s death from illness in 1815 at the age of 26. Casts were taken of her body, and her brain and genitals were removed and preserved. They were displayed alongside her skeleton in Paris’ Musée d’Histoire Naturelle. Her skull was stolen from the museum in 1827, and returned a few months later. Her skeleton, preserved body parts, and body cast were moved to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris in 1937 and remained there until 1974, when it was removed because of protests from feminists against the objectification of Sarah and her remains.

At long last, Saartije “Sarah” Baartman returned home in 2002, nearly 200 years after she left for Europe. After much legal wrangling, Nelson Mandela succeeded in repatriating her remains from France. She is buried on a hill overlooking the Gamtoos River Valley, the place where she was born.

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