- Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography
Nearly two hundred years since Sara Baartman’s arrival in London to perform as the “Hottentot Venus,” she would become embroiled, once again, in controversy. In January of 2010, a store in Johannesburg sold china ornaments replicating the plaster cast of Baartman, molded by nineteenth-century French scientist George Cuvier. The discovery of the ornaments sparked national and international outrage, thus proving how contentious and potent Baartman has become as a symbol of past wrongs reverberated into the present.
It is within this climate that a provocative and revealing biography about Baartman is both welcomed and cautiously greeted. Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully’s Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography joins a growing corpus of academic and intellectual scholarship on this nineteenth-century icon embraced in postcolonial and feminist circles and transformed into a South African national hero. What Crais and Scully bring to the already full table is an in-depth historical perspective few have accessed. Few scholars have accomplished what they have done by telling Baartman’s story before she arrives in London in 1810 as the Hottentot Venus. Moreover, the focus on Baartman the woman in England and France, rather than the Hottentot Venus the image, is placed front and center in a compelling and fascinating read.
Crais and Scully draw a meticulous picture of life for a colonized woman such as Baartman on the Cape of South Africa, reminding us of how Baartman had already become urbanized and multilingual in her interactions with the numerous groups residing there. The purpose of presenting this type of story, they argue, is to contest stereo-typical [End Page 403] imaginings of an “innocent” or even “savage” African girl, who was captured and brought to Europe to be exhibited in a cage, and to instead present a “worldly woman in her thirties.” As they posit, “Sara was a colonial woman. She walked, and worked, and lived in the commercial mélange that was Cape Town. She wore skirts and tops and dresses, humble yes, but European clothing nonetheless” (p. 57).
As with recent trends in scholarship about women and women’s history, an emphasis is placed on “agency” in an attempt to refute or complicate stories and discourses of victimization. Few would deny that Baartman as the Hottentot Venus has mostly functioned in numerous narratives as a “victim,” both in the controversy of her own time, when abolitionists in London brought her exhibitors to trial, and our own time, when a post-apartheid South Africa struggled for seven years to reclaim her skeletal remains from Paris’s Musée de l’Homme. And yet, Crais and Scully maneuver their way through this narrative to recuperate Baartman’s choices, as limited as they were, and reclaim her humanity. They explore her personal relationships and discuss her birthing of three children who died. They also contextualized much of the colonial and racial politics occurring at the time in South Africa and in Europe, which shaped how Baartman was led to “choosing” to perform as the Hottentot Venus.
Beyond Baartman’s life story, they venture into the “life” of the Hottentot Venus iconography after her death in 1815. They examine how this icon emerged in Western literature and popular culture, as well as assess how Baartman rose to her postcolonial iconic status. This is made manifest not just in the demands for her remains to be returned to South Africa but also in how certain groups, who claim Baartman as an ancestor, participated in the reclamation process, from rituals and artistic projects to demands for DNA testing.
Despite their careful attention to Baartman’s choices, one cannot help but feel the authors are also engaged in some sort of apologia, wrapped up in the discourse of agency. Such nitpicky emphasis on how Baartman may have chosen the design of her Hottentot Venus costume, rather than contemplate what difference...