Who?!?!: Sarah Baartman (Saartjie Baartman, Hottentot Venus):The Origin Of “Video Vixen”
Sarah Baartman (1789-1815), also known as Saartjie Baartman or the Hottentot Venus, was an African woman who became a sideshow in London and Paris. She was almost completely naked and had a very large behind, even for the part of Africa she came from – near Cape Town in South Africa. Those who paid more were allowed to touch it.
She was promised riches if she came to Europe, but she ended her life in prostitution and drink in the streets of Paris, far from home, dying at age 26 of an “inflammatory and eruptive sickness”.
It gets worse.
After she died her body was cut up and studied by Napoleon’s doctor, Georges Cuvier. He made a cast of her body and put her skeleton, brain and labia in the Museum of Man in Paris where it was seen for more than a hundred years, until the 1970s.
She is well known by her own people, the Khoisans (who used to be called Hottentots). She has come to stand for all the sick injustices they have had to live through under white rule.
Baartman’s parents were killed when she was little. She became a slave of a Dutch farmer who lived near Cape Town. In 1810 a man from England promised her half the profits if she came to London with him to show her off.
She was shown off to Londoners as if she were an animal. She was kept behind bars most of the time, almost completely naked. She was told to act like a wild animal. Sometimes she was let out to do tricks, like sitting, standing and walking on command.
A man from Jamaica saw this and demanded that she be freed. But the judge, after speaking with her, said she was doing it of her own free will.
In 1814 she came to Paris where she became part of the show of an animal trainer. When the French tired of her she was forced into prostitution.
Her labia were large and hung down from her body. That is natural for Khoisans but not for whites. Some took it as physical proof that black women are mad for sex. While she was alive she let no one see them, as it is a private part of a woman’s body, but once she was dead Cuvier had them shown in public.
When Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994 he asked France to return her remains. It took eight years and a special law, but in the end the French gave her back. Her body has now been laid to rest on a hill near where she was born.
Sadly, it is not a huge jump from the Hottentot Venus of the 1810s to the Danse sauvage of Josephine Baker in 1925 to the video vixens of 2008. But there has been progress of a sort: no one thinks of putting Buffie the Body in a museum after she dies…yet.