Black History Moment: The first “Booty Model” – Venus Hottentot
Wandering through the London area of St. James’s Square today, past the old-boys’ clubs like Boodle’s and White’s, and the grim palace that Prince Charles once called home, it’s hard to imagine that in the last years of King George III’s reign carnivals of human curiosities existed side by side with these bastions of English aristocracy. But late Georgian Piccadilly — London’s most fashionable district since the Restoration — was as much a place for shows featuring “the Living Skeleton” and the 19-inch “Sicilian Fairy” as it was for members of Parliament, playwrights and self-styled gentlemen. Properly top-hatted and shawled, men and women of Britain’s upper crust gawked at, prodded and squeezed these so-called human freaks, amusing themselves with the deformities that were paraded before them.
The Hottentot Venus, with buttocks of enormous size and with genitalia fabled to be equally disproportionate, was part of this human menagerie. When she arrived in London in 1810, this young woman from South Africa became an overnight sensation in London’s theater of human oddities. Her body was the object of prurient gaze, scientific fascination and disturbed bewilderment. Today, in the hands of Rachel Holmes, a former English professor at the University of London, it is “a symbol of the alienation and degradations of colonization, lost children, exile, the expropriation of female labor and the sexual and economic exploitation of black women by men, white and black.”
It is difficult not to be propelled through “African Queen.” The story of Saartjie Baartman — the Hottentot Venus’s real name — is inherently fascinating, and littered with a diverse cast of highly unlikable characters, ranging from Baartman’s lowly black South African master, Hendrik Cesars, to the foremost European scientist of the day, Georges Léopold Chrétien Cuvier. For Holmes, Baartman’s journey as an object of European curiosity and African exploitation began on the veld of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. It was there that Baartman, scarcely more than a teenager, was left both orphaned and widowed after a European-led commando ambushed her betrothal celebration, killing her father and husband. She was taken to Cape Town where she worked for Cesars and his wife as a house servant and wet nurse. Eventually, Cesars and Alexander Dunlop, a British military doctor, smuggled her into England in hopes that her oversized posterior would make their fortune.
Baartman was thrust onto the stage in Piccadilly, in a skintight, flesh-colored get-up, complete with a panoply of African beads and ostrich feathers. Baartman’s seminaked display left little to the imagination and reinforced England’s obsession with bottoms, both literally and figuratively. (The political scene was rife with speculation over whether Lord Grenville, known for his extraordinary derrière, and his Whig coalition, known as the broad bottoms, would take over Parliament if George III abdicated.) Baartman’s arrival was, as Holmes points out, “a journalist’s dream.” She goes on to observe that “the obsession with Saartjie’s posterior, posterity and broad bottomedness, and the endless punning on rear ends, rumps, fundaments and fat arses became explicitly tied to the most pressing and topical political issues concerning the decline of King George, the rise of the Regency and which rumps would take over government.”
Her economic exploitation also became the cause célèbre of abolitionists in London, who unsuccessfully lodged a case for Baartman’s freedom. But the young woman had limited choices: a return to South Africa, where surely she would have resumed a life of servitude, or continued exploitation in England, where she at least received a small wage and a modicum of freedom. Baartman, it seemed, preferred the latter, though the option was palatable only if swallowed with a healthy dose of alcohol, something that became an addiction as her years wore on.
Eventually, the Hottentot Venus’s journey took her to France, where Cesars handed her over to a “predatory showman” named Réaux in an undisclosed deal. By the spring of 1815, she had become the object of Cuvier’s scientific and sexual interest and, with her death in December of that year, was made the subject of a gruesome, hypersexual post-mortem dissection under the famed scientist’s knife.
At pains to place Baartman’s behavior and life in a framework of feminist and psychoanalytic interpretation, Holmes presents a narrative overladen with theory, however deftly disguised. This approach does more to undermine than strengthen the story. Holmes’s preoccupation with Baartman’s relationships to paternalistic figures, for instance, stands in the way of a fuller understanding of the European world in which the young South African maneuvered. True, we get into the minds of a few key characters — Holmes performs a veritable hatchet job on Cuvier — but what of the gazers who queued up by the thousands to catch a glimpse of the famous bottom? And why did aristocratic St. James’s Square and fashionable Piccadilly permit the likes of Cesars and Dunlop into the neighborhood?
Holmes suggests that the public’s obsession with Baartman coincided with the “new era of European imperialist expansion into the African interior, feminized by its would-be British colonizers as a continent ripe for conquest.” This would be a reasonable explanation, except for the fact that it is off by several decades. Africa was still the white man’s grave when Baartman arrived on the scene. Had the history of Britain been more broadly told, “African Queen” would be a better book, and the woman and curiosity that was the Hottentot Venus would be much plainer to see.