In Media


Bring back the Hottentot Venus
Date : 1995-06-15

A Quena woman who was shown in Europe as a circus freak last century is to be the subject of a documentary reviving the memory of South Africa's aboriginal people, writes Eddie Koch

IN 1815 George Cuvier, surgeon general to Napoleon Bonaparte, was given the body of a Quena, or Hottentot, woman called Saartjie Baartman, who had died after living as a circus freak in England and France. The doctor made a plaster cast of the woman's corpse before he cut out her brains and genitals and preserved them in laboratory bottles.

Ten years ago these commodities were still on display at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris -- macabre icons of those "little people" who suffered the worst forms of ethnocide anywhere in the colonial period and who are today largely forgotten, even though their descendants fill the ranks of South Africa's rainbow nation.

Now a local researcher is spearheading a movement to return Baartman's remains so that the woman can be given the dignity that she was denied in her lifetime. The operation, dubbed "Bring Back the Hottentot Venus", is also designed to revive a popular memory of the aboriginal people who played a major role in shaping South Africa's past and present.

Saartjie Baartman's early life is unknown except that she came from a clan of Quena people, better known in South Africa by the derogatory term "Hottentot", in the Eastern Cape. Born in the late 18th century, probably in the 1780s, Baartman migrated to the Cape Flats, where the records show she was living in a small shack in 1810.

In that year she met a ship's doctor, William Dunlop, who persuaded her to travel to England with promises that she would make a fortune by exhibiting her body to Europeans. It appears that two settlers called Hendrik and Johan Cezar, probably themselves descendants of a mixed-race marriage between a Quena woman and a Dutchman, were instrumental in setting up the deal.

Baartman sailed with Dunlop to England, where she was put on display in a building in Piccadilly, exciting crowds of working-class Londoners who viewed her with a mixture of morbid curiosity and malice. Like all Quena woman, she had a protruding backside and large genital organs -- billed by the show's promoters as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey's throat.

Contemporary descriptions of her shows at 225 Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket in London say Baartman was made to parade naked along 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".

The exhibitions took place at a time when the anti- slavery debate was raging in England and Baartman's plight attracted the attention of a young Jamaican, Robert Wedderburn, who founded the African Association to campaign against racism in England. Under pressure from this group, the attorney general asked the government to put an end to the circus, saying Baartman was not a free participant.

A London court, however, found that Baartman had entered into a contract with Dunlop, although historian Percival Kirby, who has discovered records of the woman's life in exile, believes she never saw the document.

In 1814, after spending four years being paraded around the streets of London, Baartman was taken to Paris and, according to the archival accounts, was handed to a "showman of wild animals" in a travelling circus. Her body was analysed by scientists, including Cuvier, while she was alive and a number of pseudo-scientific articles were written about her, testimony at the time to the superiority of the European races.

Jeremy Nathan, a South African film producer who is making a feature film on the life of Baartman, says the Quena women excited the attention of the Parisian intelligensia at the time. Cuvier, who was at the centre of an eminent school of social anthropologists, met her -- on display as a naked and exotic savage dressed only in feathers -- at a high-society ball organised by the Countess Du Barrie.

"This was the time of pre-Darwinist social anthropology and Cuvier believed she was the missing link, the highest form of animal life and the lowest form of human life," says Nathan.

Her anatomy even inspired a comic opera in France. Called The Hottentot Venus or Hatred to French Women, the drama encapsulated the complex of racial prejudice and sexual fascination that occupied European perceptions of aboriginal people at the time. It appears Baartman worked as a prostitute in Paris and drank heavily to cope with the humiliation she was subjected to.

She died in 1815 of an "inflammatory and eruptive sickness", possibly syphilis. Cuvier made a plaster cast of her corpse before dissecting it. He removed her skeleton and cut out her brain and genitals, which he pickled in bottles that were put on display at the Musee de l'Homme for more than 150 years. Her remains were removed from public exhibition 10 years ago but remain the property of the museum.

Researcher Mansell Upham now wants these remains to be returned to South Africa. "Hottentots are the most dehumanised people in colonial history. Even today the term is used to designate non-human status and Saartjie Baartman's remains are an icon of this history," says

Contemporary accounts describe how bands of Dutch raiding parties went on horseback to the eastern and northern Cape frontiers to hunt down and exterminate "bushmen" groups who were considered cattle thieves and a threat to settler society.

"Yet the Quena are the ancestors of a lot of people in this country, some of them marginal people out there who don't exist in the eyes of anybody. Bringing back her remains can help to address this and stimulate a debate about aboriginal groups -- like the "bushmen", Griquas and coloureds -- who have been neglected in reductionist black and white versions of our history."

Upham, who claims to be a direct descendant of Jan van Riebeeck's protege called Krotoa (better known in the history books as Eva), says Quena history has largely been ignored even though the so-called "Hottentots" were a founder population for many Afrikaners and the Cape coloured people.

Quena clans mixed extensively with Xhosa people, passing on the powerful clicks that distinguish the Nguni group of languages, and other Xhosa cultural features. This heritage, says Upham, is literally inscribed in the features of President Nelson Mandela, who more than likely has some "Hottentot" ancestry.

Canada, Australia and, to some extent, the United States have recently developed a historiography that details the experiences of aboriginal peoples in those countries. An awareness is growing worldwide of the plight of indigenous people -- groups who were resident in a country before it was colonised by aliens -- and is reflected in a United Nations decision to declare this the Decade of Indigenous People.

This consciousness appears, however, to be lacking in South Africa, where an overriding preoccupation with racial conflict between white settlers and African polities has overshadowed the role played by aboriginal groups in the country's history. Upham believes a campaign to "bring back Baartman" can help remedy the

"Our film will reconstruct the experiences and perceptions of this young woman," says Nathan. "It will show how the academic discourse that surrounded her contributed to popular European perceptions of race and helped to change the course of history."

Academic discussion and research into the plight of marginal groups is one thing, says Upham, important because they help generate wider public awareness of their human rights. Of greater concern, however, are indications that far-right groups are filling the gap left by the country's main political movements and gearing up to mobilise separatist support among the Griquas, coloureds and surviving "bushman" groups in South Africa.

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