Rachel Holmes, The Hottentot Venus

The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman, Born 1789 – Buried 2002, by Rachel Holmes (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

[Published in Afrikaans in Rapport, 14 September 2007]

The story of Saartjie Baartman is both fascinating and tragic. Smuggled from the Cape when barely an adult in 1810, she became an exhibit in an England obsessed with freak shows. Eventually freed from this indignity by abolitionists, Baartman ended up in France, modeling for French scientists. She died in 1814, of a combination of illness and alcoholism, and, I am sure, the psychological effects of the past four years of her life.

I first came across her story in Stephen Gray’s volume of poetry, Hottentot Venus and Other Poems (1979), and her story has filtered through into more literature and art in more recent times. Newspaper readers will also remember the struggle over having her remains returned to South African soil from France, and her eventual interment in Hankey, near the Gamtoos, in August 2002.

For the most part, however, Baartman is a subject of academic study. From her days in France as subject of colonial racial anthropology to present histories of such colonial science and the history of the black body in European art, her story is well documented. But only so for academic audiences. Rachel Holmes’s book thus comes as a welcome popular history of Saartjie Baartman.

Baartman’s story starts in the Gamtoos Valley, where she is born in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. Named by the Khoisan, the Gamtoos area by then had also become a place of violent contest between colonists and indigenous people. But Holmes also sketches a frontier society with remarkable integration, noting from a journal of that time that “kraals and European habitations were mixed.”

Saartjie thus grows up through the first British occupation (1795-1803), with Khoisan and Xhosa allied to the British against the Dutch. As the British didn’t keep their promises of livestock and land to the Khoisan and Xhosa, the latter two groups rebelled, leading to a realignment between the British and Dutch. It is in this context that Baartman’s story really starts.

In 1807, on the night of her engagement, a commando raids the party. The men fight back, but most are killed, including Baartman’s father and her future husband. She is captured and marched to Cape Town. In Cape Town, she will eventually work for Hendrik Cesars, a “free black” in the employ of the British Staff Surgeon, Alexander Dunlop. These two men will eventually smuggle her out of Cape Town, planning to exhibit her as a scientific curiosity, and promising her a life of relative comfort.

From here, Holmes follows the ever-deepening tragedy of Saartjie Baartman’s life. The book is well-researched, adding fullness to her story and appealing to non-specialists with an interest in both Saartjie Baartman and South African history. While Holmes provides cultural and historical contexts, the book doesn’t get bogged down in too much such detail. It thus remains a readable account of Saartjie Baartman’s life as the story of an individual.


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