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BOOK REVIEW

'Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus' by Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully

A fascinating exploration of one of the most famous, least-known women in history.

February 11, 2009|Martin Rubin | Rubin is a critic and the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."

When we think of the period two centuries before our own, then as now it is global conflicts that dominate: the titanic Napoleonic struggles and our own nasty little scrap with England in the War of 1812.

Of course, we remember that Jane Austen was writing at this time, even if she seldom deigned to mention current events; and who can forget the early 19th century Empire style of dresses, which hearkened back to the simplicity of Ancient Greece and foretold the freer fashions of the 1920s?

But in recent decades, historiography has opened up our knowledge of the past by roaming far beyond the conventional confines of warfare and political economy and, in the process, uncovered terrific stories, such as the shameful and tragic tale of the hapless Sara Baartman.

A sensation in its time, the story of the so-called Hottentot Venus seems to us a terrible story of humiliation and degradation, a victimization that continued even after her death, far away from her birthplace in a desolate region of the Eastern Cape Colony at the southern tip of Africa.

A member of a small indigenous tribe of herdsmen dubbed the Hottentots by Dutch colonists (but known today by their name Khoikhoi), Baartman was captured in the course of ongoing colonial warfare that effected a genocidal destruction of this peaceful people. Having been enslaved, she was taken to Europe by a member of the family that "owned" and exhibited her much as an exotic animal might be.

Sign of the times

Professors Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully of Emory University have done an excellent job not only of telling this rebarbative story but of putting it into the context of its time. This enables them to explain what permitted such an exhibition while at the same time viewing it through our (thankfully) more humane and enlightened lens.

1810 through '15, when this revolting scene was unfolding on the stages of London and Paris, was an odd time in the deplorable history of slavery. The slave trade in the British Empire had just ended in 1807, a year before the U.S. Constitution mandated the end of importing slaves, but the institution itself would not end in the empire until 1833.

Still, there was already sufficient abolitionist feeling in Britain for Baartman to have been brought before a court in London and examined in Dutch, a process that led to a determination that she was a voluntary participant in what was happening to her and that she was receiving a share of the profits from the enterprise.

So was this an unusual opportunity for a slave to escape drudgery and profit financially or a degradation and victimization?

Possibly both.

Humiliating as the process seems to us, it tapped into a sentimental cult of the so-called noble savage popularized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Condescending as such a notion now seems, it was in its time thought to be a broad-minded, humanistic way of thinking, a salutary reminder of how political correctness changes over time.

The name "Hottentot Venus" is problematic today -- the name Hottentot derives from the Dutch/Afrikaans word for "stuttering," a derogatory reference to the clicks characteristic of the tribe's spoken language -- but lingers in the name Hottentot Fig for the succulent known more commonly as ice plant, seen throughout Southern California.

Genetic traits

And as for "Venus," there was also an unmistakable prurience involved in showing Baartman off to European audiences. She exhibited the common genetic traits of the Khoikhoi: a marked steatopygia and also the condition known as sinus pudoris. This latter, sometimes called the apron, involved a natural elongation of the labia, which female family members often stretched to accentuate -- a process now regarded as a type of genital mutilation.

Baartman never allowed this feature of hers to be shown to audiences while she was alive, giving credence to her active participation in the exhibition process. But after her death from pneumonia or possibly from smallpox in Paris in 1815, a grotesque autopsy shone a spotlight on this, amounting to a posthumous violation even more unsavory than anything visited upon poor Sara in her short life.

It is not surprising that this victim should have cried out for some measure of redress in the 21st century. The post-apartheid government of South Africa brought her body back from its French burial place in 2002 to be buried in her native soil with all the trappings of a state funeral, duly televised, a symbol of global as well as national victimization.

Baartman's story has been the subject of works by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and biologist Stephen Jay Gould as well as by poets as diverse as Edith Sitwell and Elizabeth Alexander, recently famous for her poem at President Obama's inauguration but whose first published book hearkened back to Sara.

No one, however, has succeeded as well as Crais and Scully in illuminating not only her important role as icon and symbol but, so important, the human being behind them.

Because of their diligent research and their deep understanding of the era in which she lived -- along with their sensitivity to our own time and concerns -- they have truly given us the "living breathing person" that was "Sara Baartman, the human being who was ultimately destroyed by an illusion."

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