On December 31, 1816 Saartje Baartman died in Paris. She had been ill for three days, perhaps stricken with smallpox, before she and her unborn child expired. Better known as the “Hottentot Venus”, Baartman was a celebrity in Europe known for being the antithesis of the European concept of beauty. She was a dark-skinned member of the Khoikhoi tribe of South Africa* with buttocks so large that they mesmerized Europeans. She was treated as a sideshow attraction, marveled at by scholars and the public alike.
*[I have attempted to refrain from using the term "Hottentot" in this essay as it is presently regarded as a slur attached to the Khoikhoi by Europeans. It roughly translates to "stutterer" and indicates the low status the Europeans felt these people held, and as such I do not want to continue its usage. I have left it in quotes from my sources to preserve the sentiments of those 19th century authors.]
There would be no funeral for Saartje. The naturalists of Paris could not let such an extraordinary specimen slip through their fingers and after her death she was taken to the natural history museum at the Jardin des Plantes. As reported in The Literary Panorama and National Register the naturalists waiting to examine her body were glad to see that “her size and enormous protuberances are not diminished.” After they were through a wax cast was made of her body, her brain was removed, and her skeleton was stripped of flesh.
Indeed, though Saartje had only lived in Europe for about six years she would remain famous for decades. She was displayed as a warped human being that represented the opposite of absolute beauty embodied in the Venus de’ Medici (a scholarly paper could be written on this topic alone). From scholarly papers to jokes in magazines, she was considered the lowest and most crude of all humanity.
It all started in 1810. In the latter half of that year Saartje was exhibited as the “Hottentot Venus” in England and quickly drew crowds of onlookers. No one had seen anything quite like her, but her exhibition quickly drew outrage. On November 24, 1810 the Edinburgh Annual Register reported that the Attorney General was leading an inquiry into the case of “this unfortunate female, who was exhibited to the public under circumstances of peculiar disgrace to a civilized country.” There could be little doubt that this woman had been brought to England against her will and was being shown off in a manner incongruous with the conduct of a moral country.
It was the dealings of Alexander Dunlop, one of the proprietors of the show, that had raised suspicions. Dunlop traded in curiosities he acquired from Africa and he contacted Mr. Bullock of the Liverpool Museum about a giraffe skin he wanted to sell. Bullock wasn’t interested, but soon after Dunlop came back with another offer. What about a package deal; the giraffe skin and an African woman so exotic that she would be sure to attract hordes of paying customers? For one reason or another Bullock purchased the giraffe skin but not Saartje, and Dunlop “disposed of” her to Heindrich Cezar.
In truth, Cezar and Dunlop were partners from the beginning. They had worked together to bring Saartje to England and perhaps they realized they could make more money exhibiting her themselves than by selling her to someone else. They set her up in a sideshow atmosphere, and when the head of the local African Association went to see Saartje he was horrified by what he saw. There was;
a stage raised about three feet from the floor, with a cage, or enclosed place at the end of it ; that the Hottentot was within the cage ; that on being ordered by her keeper, she came out, and that her appearance was highly offensive to delicacy. … the Hottentot was produced like a wild beast, and ordered to move backwards and forwards, and come out and go into her cage, more like a bear in a chain than a human being. Deponent was confident, from every appearance, that she was totally under restraint ; but from his not being able to converse with her, could only judge from appearances. Those appearances, however,were convincing. She frequently heaved deep sighs ; seemed anxious and uneasy ; and grew sullen when she was ordered to play on some rude instrument of music. Two gentlemen, one a native of Holland, were sent there to converse with her ; and being told that she could speak Dutch, they asked her if she had any relations at the Cape ; if she felt herself comfortable ; if she wished to return to her own country ; but to these questions, the most interesting that could have been asked of a creature in her situation, she returned no answer.
The court was not very much concerned with the indecency of the show, however. “The object of the court is, of course, not to call forth any statement, inconsistent with delicacy,” the transcript read, “but to ascertain how far the exhibition gives her pain as a sentient being.” It was also called into question whether the British governor of South Africa truly knew the intentions of Dunlop and Cezar when they petitioned to take her from the country. Why would a governor allow these men to take a woman under his protection (for the Khoikhoi were thought not able to govern themselves) for such a brutal spectacle?
The investigation went on for another month, and the December 19th issue of the Edinburgh Annual Register printed an update on the case. Saartje was examined and questioned (she could converse in Dutch) by people appointed by the court away from Dunlop and Cezar, but likely to the dismay of the Attorney General she said she had no complaints about life in Europe.
According to the report she said she had worked as a servant for the Cezar family when Heindrich asked her if she would like to go to England. He had promised to make her rich. She went willingly and said she did not want to go home. Given that the exhibit was not termed indecent and that, by her own testimony, she had come willingly, there was no further legal action to take. Her share of the profits would be placed in the case of a trustee and the case was closed. Even if Saartje had been coerced into giving the answers she did by Dunlop & Cezar there appeared to be no crime to prosecute even if the show inflamed some people’s sensibilities.
It appears that Dunlop & Cezar’s brush with the court made them change their operation, however. Saartje began to make appearances at dinner parties where she freely conversed with whomever wished to speak with her. She was still looked upon as a freak, however, and a report from a May 14, 1811 article in the Morning Chronicle stated that she could not sit at the main table at one such party for “the smell of meat affects her, [she] being accustomed to live on train-oil.”
Saartje continued making appearances in England for several more years by in 1814 she was sold to a new owner in Paris. Thus began a new round of exhibitions and parties where she was invited to the salons so that the elite could watch her perform as they might watch a trained beast. Even the famed anatomist Georges Cuvier came to see her, and while he felt that her appearance and gestures were very ape-like he was impressed by her memory and ability with languages (she knew Dutch, some English, and was beginning to learn French).
It was not only her mannerisms that Cuvier was interested in, however. While Saartje appeared at parties naturalists were debating whether her extraordinarily large buttocks were the result of disease, indicated a distinct and low type of humanity, or represented something else entirely. Her new owner apparently did not allow any detailed anatomical examinations, but when Saartje died the naturalists of Paris were free to poke and prod all they wished.
Just like everyone else naturalists were deeply interested in Saartje’s breasts, buttocks, and vagina (reprints of some of Cuvier’s sketches and illustrations of other women examined appeared in the New York Medical Abstract in 1883). In his Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man, for instance, W. Lawrence wrote;
The vibration of these substances at every movement was very striking in the Hottentot Venus: they were quite soft to the feel. She measured more than eighteen inches (French) across the haunches; and the projection of the hips exceeded six inches.
Indeed, explanation was not as important as measurement to document the variability of human form. (And I have no doubt that these examinations were hardly innocent.) In another example, the 1868 book The Natural History of Man by John George Wood, the author described how Francis Galton was dumbstuck by a Khoikhoi woman with a build similar to Saartje’s. Galton deeply desired to take measurements of his own but since he was being hosted by missionaries (who also acted as his interpreters) he could not figure out how to request such an examination;
I profess to be a scientific man, and was exceedingly anxious to obtain accurate measurement of her shape; but there was a difficulty in doing this. I did not know a word of Hottentot, and could never, therefore, explain to the lady what the object of my foot-rule could be ; and I really dared not ask my worthy missionary host to interpret for me. I therefore felt in a dilemma as I gazed at her form, that gift of bounteous nature to this favoured race, which no mantua-maker, with all her crinoline and stuffing, can do otherwise than humbly imitate.
The object of my admiration stood under a tree, and was turning herself about to all points of the compass, as ladies who wish to be admired usually do. Of a sudden my eye fell upon my sextant; the bright thought struck me, and I took a series of observations upon her figure in every direction, up and down, crossways, diagonally, and so forth, and I registered them carefully upon an outline drawing for fear of any mistake. This being done, I boldly pulled out my measuring tape, and measured the distance from where I was to the place she stood, and, having thus obtained both base and angles, I worked out the result by trigonometry and logarithms.
Not everyone could be said to have admired Saartje’s form. Even though she had been dead for over 20 years she was apparently still famous enough that an 1838 issue of The Mirror mocked her outright;
A Hottentot Venus and novel plate-warmer.
There is in this district a rival of the Hottentot Venus; if she does not excel her in the quantity of “cebaceous deposit.” Rewarded by a trifle of money or tobacco, she will good- naturedly allow a cloth to be spread behind, and on which four plates may be laid, thus forming a peripatetic table!
This type of demeaning treatment would continue but it would be veiled in academic discourse. Saartje’s appearance was so repulsive to many Europeans that they had little doubt that she was the most bestial of humanity, the closest human approximation to an ape. This was illustrated in an 1843 issue of The Family Magazine which compared the facial angles of various “races” to show how far Saartje’s face differed from that of the “Grecian ideal.” These types of illustrations had deep roots in the Great Chain of Being and certainly implied that she was closer to apes than Europeans even if her membership within our species had to be admitted.
Being that Saartje was dead and her brain was available for examination, however, naturalists inspected the matter formerly held within her skull to figure out where she fell in the continuum of “inferior” to “superior” races. The standard examination of her brain, which was cited by nearly all succeeding authorities, was undertaken by the French anatomist Louis Pierre Gratiolet. He had determined that Saartje was not an imbecile but that her brain was certainly “less complicated” than that of Europeans. T.H. Huxley agreed with this assessment, and in his 1861 lecture “On the Zoological Relations of Man With the Lower Animals” he wondered if Saartje’s brain could be representative of a certain stage of mental evolution from ape to human;
Thus, the cerebral hemispheres of the Bosjesman [Bushman and Khoikhoi] (and to a certain extent of the negro), so far as the evidence before us goes, are different from those of the white man; and the circumstances in which they differ–viz., the more pointed shape of the cerebral hemispheres, the greater symmetry of their convolutions, and the different development of certain of these convolutions,–are all of the same nature as most of those which distinguish the ape’s brain from that of man. In other words, if we place A, the European brain, B, the Bosjesman brain, and C, the orang brain, in a series, the differences between A and B, so far as they have been ascertained, are of the same nature as the chief of those between B and C.
This would only hold true if Saartje’s brain was “normal”, a point not all naturalists were convinced of. An article in the 1863 issue of the Anthropological Review made the case that she represented a case of “arrested development.” In the discussion that followed the presentation of the paper, however, Robert Dunn reflected how he had seen Saartje when she was alive and she seemed neither small-headed nor dumb. To this C.C. Blake responded that there was “powerful evidence” of her stupidity. Her brain had been examined by no less an authority than Gratiolet, and even though the French anatomist did not think her to be an idiot Blake felt that the opposite had been shown. To this he added “A zoologist has lately argued, from the readiness with which the woman stripped herself, that she was sane; but surely no one else would consider this as an evidence of sanity.”
Also present at the meeting was Richard Owen, who affirmed that her skeleton was so different from other Khoikhoi he had examined that she surely did represent a case of arrested development. At this point, though, the discussion changed course to whether the Aztecs, also regarded as being stupid & docile, had any “Jewish blood” in them. (The consensus was that they did not.)
The general consensus on Saartje’s brain was that she was not under-developed or an idiot. Her brain simply was not as “complex” as European ones and was therefore inferior. She was surely a human, albeit one that belonged to a “savage race”, and this was reiterated by A. de Quatrefages in his 1890 book The Human Species by drawing a comparison between Saartje and Cuvier;
The known extremes at the present day of the character in question [convolutions of the brain] are offered by the Hottentot Venus and Cuvier. The brain of the former is the simplest that has ever been observed in an intelligent person. It recalls that of an idiot. The brain of Cuvier, which unfortunately has neither been modelled nor drawn, was, as we are told by the eminent anatomists who saw it, distinguished by the extraordinary complication of the convolutions and the depth of the sulci. Moreover, each convolution was, as it were, doubled by a kind of rounded ridge. In spite of these exceptional cases, no one would surely dream of placing the great naturalist in any other species than that to which his contemporaries belong. Neither can we consider the simplification of the brain of the Hottentot Venus as a specific character.
Rather than being mocked outright Saartje was by now treated with a condescending sort of disdain, simply a poor member of an “inferior” race. Some, however, could not get over their personal revulsion. The wax cast of Saartje remained on display at the Jardin des Plantes and in 1887 the St. Louis Courier of Medicine printed an article by G.M.B Maughs reaffirming her place at the base of humanity. This both fascinated and repulsed Maughs, as evidenced by his discussion of her genitals.
Even though they had been covered by a fig leaf in the display Maughs contorted to get a look behind and under the obstructing greenery to satisfy his curiosity. Saartje had large vaginal lips that formed a sort of “apron” that some naturalists previously thought was a unique organ or mark of a distinct group of people. (Cuvier used this to compare her to some monkeys; “[Her genitals] offer a resemblance striking to those which occur with the female Mandrilles, Baboons, etc, and which take has certain times of their life a really monstrous increase.”) Maughs was so disgusted that he apparently could not help taking a further potshot at Saartje;
So entirely brutal are the bodily formation and physiognomy of this Hottentot female, that a female gorilla would scarcely make a less desirable bed-fellow.
It will not surprise you that Maugh deemed Caucasians to be the most superior of all people. Since they had developed culture and a “higher” sense of aesthetics there was a positive feedback loop in our evolution where the “good” and the “beautiful” were selected for;
Just as the males of birds and the human Caucasian female have been rendered more beautiful by many thousands of years of esthetic selection, and the muscles of athletes developed by exercise, have the crania of this race been rendered larger, more symmetrical by brain culture. To suppose otherwise, to think that civilization, culture of the nervous centres, education, had made no improvement in the thinking organ, the brain, and consequently in the size and shape of the cranium, would be to ignore all experience. And, as all things that exist, do so by their adaptation to the necessary conditions of their existence, to suppose that with this alteration in the size and shape of the head, there was not a corresponding alteration in the female pelvis, would be at least unphilosophical.
By the beginning of the 20th century Saartje’s place in nature was becoming more of a footnote than a source of widespread debate, however. The discovery of fossil humans, particularly their skull caps, made discussions of her brain less important to consideration of human evolution. Some scholars continued to wonder whether she could be justly called beautiful or whether she represented some kind of abnormal psychology, but while her stage name appeared in many publications there was no longer the kind of detailed discussion of her there once had been.
Many times, while perusing the history of science, I come across once-important artifacts or objects that have seemingly disappeared. They often have been destroyed or left to rot in museum storerooms. This is not the case with Saartje. In 2002 her remains were interred near the Gamtoos River in South Africa after nearly eight years of negotiations between the South African and French governments. I am certainly glad that Saartje’s remains were repatriated, but I fear that the lessons we should learn from her tragedy will be overlooked.
The tragedy of Saartje Baartman is not just a sad historical tale. For most of the 19th century this poor woman was denied her dignity as the Europeans debated whether she was a throwback, an imbecile, or just another example of an inferior race. Even if some fought for her right not to be exploited she was still seen as the most degenerate of our entire species. The consensus about her significance to human nature changed throughout the years but from one decade to the next people saw what they wanted to see in her appearance, mannerisms, and brain.
Saartje’s case reveals that those who were convinced that dark-skinned races were deficient and inferior found just what they were looking for, and I do not think scientists have suddenly become immune from being influenced by racial prejudice. It was not so long ago that The Bell Curve affirmed the intellectual inferiority of blacks and the question of even studying race is still hotly debated.
We might like to think ourselves as more objective than scientists of the past, that we have somehow freed ourselves from these embarrassing racial biases, but there is perhaps no area of research so influenced by our own beliefs and convictions than the study of humanity. If people set out to biologically define races or differences between races I have no doubt they will find what they were looking for. That is not mere speculation; it is what history reveals. The question is how much of these detected differences are real and how much are they efforts to cram biology into artificial categories we feel should exist? When it comes to the study of humanity we need to examine ourselves the most closely of all, and it is for this reason that I hope the lesson of the “Hottentot Venus” is not lost on modern academics.