Sara Baartman and The Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography

Kaila Adia Story lauds this powerful effort to reclaim the history of a woman abused by European society

February 19, 2009

In Sara Baartman and The Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography, Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully tell a chilling tale of exploitation in recounting the life of Sara Baartman (1789-1815), a Khoekhoe woman born in present-day South Africa, enslaved and brought to England to be "exhibited". In doing so, they also examine the idea of the woman who would become known throughout Europe as the "Hottentot Venus", and upon whom were projected notions of hypersexuality and immodesty. The authors also recount the scientific, genealogical, sociopolitical and differential conclusions that Europe reached with regard to the black female body. Finally, they discuss in detail how Europe would overdetermine the anatomy and assumed persona of the black female body to such a degree that it ultimately became a representation of itself.

In this descriptive and elaborate outline of both Baartman's true life and her performance life, Crais and Scully allow the reader to see that although she was regarded as the object of Western scientific discourse in the early 19th century, she is clearly the subject of their book. They reveal that through Baartman's exhibitions and ultimate dissection after her death, her body was both erotic and propagandistic, and make it clear that Baartman provided a corporeal starting point, with her body and assumed persona transformed by Europe into the actual corporeal representation of its projections and/or imagination. Crais and Scully emphasise that Baartman's representation and the discourse surrounding her "fleshy" figure have informed our collective perception of what it physically means to be both black and female.

Although Crais and Scully make this clear early on in their exquisite book, the argument that Baartman existed only in the European imagination is not the crux of their piece. While the authors do argue this point throughout the book, they make it clear that their main objective was to recover and rewrite the history of the woman Sara Baartman, rather than to tell their audience about the performer Hottentot Venus.

Having conducted my own research on Baartman, this book provides me with a wealth of information about who she was before she was shipped north and made to perform as Europe's sexual proclivity and running joke. Not only do Crais and Scully provide the reader with extensive detail on Baartman's life, but they also give the reader a clearer picture of how she became the Hottentot Venus and how the Hottentot Venus became an icon.

This is a thrilling, provocative and interesting exploration. The reader learns about how Baartman's life was transformed once she became the Hottentot Venus, and is given a vivid snapshot of what the sociopolitical and ideological climate of Europe was when Baartman reached its shores. Crais and Scully literally recover Baartman - the public spectacle and the "scientific discovery" - as so much more.

Not only is this book a fascinating read, it will also have done much to restore the historical record in Europe and the US. It is an important and necessary contribution to the existing discourse on Sara Baartman's impact on contemporary ideas of race, sexuality and the European conception of primitivity.

Sara Baartman and The Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography

By Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully

Princeton University Press 248pp, £21.95

ISBN 9780691135809

Published 20 November 2008

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