Reassessing the ‘Hottentot Venus’

This disturbing yet stunning painting was created by the extraordinarily talented Cape Town artist, Frederick Mpuuga, and is an artistic interpretation of the'Hottentot Venus's' life as viewed through the lens of subsequent history.
This disturbing yet stunning painting was illustrated by an extraordinarily talented Cape Town artist named Frederick Mpuuga, and appears to be an artistic reinterpretation of the ‘Hottentot Venus’s’ life viewed through a historical lens.

Since initially posting my synopsis of the French film Venus Noire (Black Venus), back in March (along with the YouTube embedded video), I have taken some time to reevaluate my position on the film. After re-watching the entire movie in its entirety and reading several biographies of the real Saartje Baartman, upon whose life the film was based, I’ve come to the conclusion that the movie does not do her or the life she lived any meaningful justice. At the time of writing the 1st synopsis, I must confess I’d only watched the first half of the nearly 3-hour movie, which, although taking certain liberties with historical record, did not have the same effect of detachment that the 2nd half of the film did.

Originally I’d opined that “director Abdellalif Kechiche’s film doesn’t hold back in its brutal depiction of even the most humiliating and heart wrenching moments in [Saartje’s] life… but this was her life, and it could be said that choosing not to include these scenes in all their brutal honesty would be a disservice to her historical legacy.” There is something inherently wrong with this statement, however, in that it takes for granted that the motive behind including these graphic scenes was specifically to invoke empathy from the movie’s audience, which now I’m not so certain was the case. The most sexually explicit scenes were so excruciatingly long and graphic that they were better-suited for some sort of fetish pornography film instead of a movie based on historical events. While normally I would vehemently defend the inclusion of such explicit scenes if it’s for the purpose of creating a realistic reenactment of history, it’s difficult to see what all this added to the overall narrative of the film. I don’t believe in sugarcoating history, especially when it comes to the very real and intense suffering that the young Sarah Baartman endured at the hands of those who sought only to humiliate and exploit her. But several scenes in particular succeeded in completely detaching the audience from any emotional investment they might have had in watching this film and were clearly added only for shock value. It’s similar to the ways in which pornography is intended to turn people on and (for lack of a better phrase) “get them off” without feeling any sense of emotional attachment to the actors in the film. There are excruciatingly long scenes in which the ‘Hottentot Venus’ is shown getting fucked by a dildo by multiple people as well as scenes where Parisian female prostitutes are shown getting penetrated by some random unattractive male customers. Perhaps this could be more easily justified if there were some real concrete evidence of the more explicit scenes having happened in real life, or if these scenes were used as a vehicle to reflect the pain and humiliation Sarah Baartman must have so often felt inside. But this didn’t happen, and the audience was left waiting for the moral point of this horrific story to be somehow driven home.

Saartje’s life was humiliating enough without having to include extra theatrics for shock value. Contrary to what numerous reports have claimed, there simply isn’t enough evidence to support as a matter of fact that Saartje took up prostitution as a profession to support herself near the end of her life. Although possible, it shouldn’t have been the focal point around which the entire last hour of the movie centered. Nor has it ever been confirmed that the disease Saartje died from was in any way sexually-related. There is a common misconception that it is a historically proven fact that Saartje died from syphilis, but this speculation has a lot more to do with racist stereotyping than being based on any objective available data.

The straw that really kind of broke the camel’s back with me and this film, however, might seem a bit trivial to some, but is of great significance when viewed in proper historical context. In quite a number of scenes in the movie, the very first in which she appears being one of them, Saartje’s performances in front of groups of uncultivated European crowds begin with her literally being shackled inside a cage. While Saartje was certainly not a free woman in any real sense, inclusion of physical shackles visible to the eye was a fabrication on the director’s part. In the book, African Queen: the real life of the Hottentot Venus, author Rachel Holmes dates this popular misconception back to a negative review of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ Act that appeared in an issue dated November, 1810 of the popular UK publication The Sporting Magazine. The writer who penned the review showed great sympathy toward Saartje and recoiled on account of what he saw as her forced submission, viewing the ‘Venus’ Act in terms of the dominant racial order of the time – Saartje’s white manager as master and she his subordinate slave. In Britain of 1810 where this review was first published, although slavery was still the practice of the British Empire, British people largely saw themselves as being above toleration of slavery on their own soil (in other words, ‘slavery is terrible and has no place in civilized society, but we’re willing to allow it to happen outside of our borders and in our names if it can further enrich us‘). Bearing this in mind the Sporting Magazine writer decried the ways in which Saartje was “shewn like a caged beast.” (Holmes, page 49.) Note the word “like.” Holmes continues, “Although many women have appeared both before and since on leashes, chained, or in cages, both literally enslaved and enslaved for popular entertainment, Saartje was not one of them.” Therefore the movie’s use of the cage was an addition that wasn’t even necessary to the overall demonstration that Saartje found herself the constant victim of white colonialist oppression. The cage in which Saartje performed was not so easily visible; it didn’t have to be.

In closing, I want to end this passage with an excerpt from Holmes’s book (page 41) which perfectly describes the reality of the historical period in which Sarah Baartman entered into Europe, never to return to the land of her birth:

She arrived toward the end of the era when sentimental primitivism held sway, and at the beginning of the rise of the new pseudoscience of ethnology, in which human beings became living specimens. Ethnology went hand in white cotton glove and khaki pith-helmet with imperialism, the economic exploitation of Africa, and the emergence of scientific racism. Saartje’s time in London coincided with a new era of European imperialist expansion into the African interior, feminized by its would-be British colonizers as a continent ripe for conquest. Dovetailing with this was the fact that African otherness, with its implications of the alien and strange, had an appeal long exploited by theatrical and popular entertainments. The Hottentot Venus arose in London as the very apotheosis of Europe’s invented Africa, the dark continent of feminized impenetrability and crude potency.

Saartje Baartman's earthly remains and a plaster cast of her body were put on display at the "Museum of Man" in Paris, where they remained as late as 1975 before being returned to her home country in 2002.
Saartje Baartman’s earthly remains and a plaster cast of her body were put on display at the “Museum of Man” in Paris, where they remained as late as 1975 before being returned to her home country in 2002.

19 thoughts

  1. What a rotten SHAME!!! And this is coming from a 57 yr. old white woman. Very, VERY Sad.

  2. Hi Caleb,

    Thank you for a very thought provoking post. I am currently busy with an extended research project on Sarah Baartman, myself. Could you be so kind as to point me in the right direction to find the origin of the image (Saartje Baartman’s earthly remains and a plaster cast of her body were put on display at the “Museum of Man” in Paris, where they remained as late as 1975 before being returned to her home country in 2002).

    Many thanks,


  3. Hi Caleb, thank you for a very thought provoking article. I am currently busy with an extended research project about Sarah Baartman myself, and I was wondering if you could point me to where I could source the picture of her remains as seen in the Museum of Man (your image is entitled: Saartje Baartman’s earthly remains and a plaster cast of her body were put on display at the “Museum of Man” in Paris, where they remained as late as 1975 before being returned to her home country in 2002). Any help in this regard would be greatly appreciated! Thanks, Andrew

  4. Caleb ,
    Appreciate your extended visit to my posts and have immersed myself in yours…..quite a lot to get through but much more absorbing than the ‘spoons collection’ of others I have seen (a Monty Python reference) . I have not had a chance to see the film as download in Aus is a luxury due to telco dominance and lack of decent streaming. What most impressed me re these related posts is your capacity to rethink your position and put yourself in the position of the ‘other’. Great blog it takes guts and tireless work to challenge dominant dialogues. A little man who was once our PM said he wanted no part of what he labelled ‘the black armed view of Australian history’ (wanker) he was also a great ‘mate’ of George W. What he could never do was provide the requested ‘apology’ to Aboriginal people in this country for the recent history of dispossession and abuse they still suffer.

    1. I really appreciate your feedback here, because it is certainly insightful. I must confess I’m not a huge expert on Australian history, although I know the slaughter and subjugation of the indigenous indeed parallels our own atrocities committed here to create the ‘United States’… European Imperialism tends to have a habit of leaving pain, death, destruction and suffering on every place it’s presence has been felt (not to be too morbid, but like they always say, “Truth hurts” /-:) And another thing, I feel sorry for y’all with this Tony Abbott guy as your Prime Minister. Not the sharpest tool in the shed is he?!

      1. Understatement Caleb! The ‘liberals’ here are about as liberal as Thatcher and Reagan. We’re in the middle of a Royal Commission into institutional sexual abuse… Church NGO’s State Theres some Aboriginal women speaking out here about the Retta Dickson home in Darwin …sad tales of institutionalised cruelty but they’ll just do the same thing as th Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report recs 20 years ago and say ‘thanx’ and shelve it.

        1. All the more reason there needs to be a truly international revolution, one which places the rights of indigenous people at the fore. These colonial/ imperial governments are destroying this earth, and the masses are fooled into thinking that it somehow benefits them as opposed to the 1%.

          1. One of the main reasons Australia behaves as a ‘nation’ is that the 1% have found it too easy to run the show. As one Aboriginal elder recently said “we are not “the problem”…..for Australia to confront its record on indigenous rights it first has to own up to it then commit to real land rights and deny the mining magnates their power. Support Gina Reinharts (daddy made money in iron ore) “axe the tax” media fiasco…well thats another story. As for destruction of the earth…..$ $ $ $ its called “climate change conspiracy” People are generally way too comfy for any ‘revolution here.

              1. We are part of US hegemonic geography Caleb, infiltrated by stealth. Our differences are minimised, our future controlled, we are a US Pacific Base, and Darwin is a US outpost where we play war games with ‘friends with “similar values”……….what can I say? Institute BDS on US?

    1. Thank you for sharing these articles. I apologize if I sounded like I was attempting to judge her alcoholism because I certainly am in no position to make such a judgement. I will definitely be reading this material you have left me, might take me a little while to get through all of the second link but I definitely want to read and understand.

  5. Excellent post. I just finished watching the movie and I whole heartedly agree with you. I haven’t read the book but I have researched and the common consensus is that no one knows for sure about the prostitution or the syphilis. Therefore, making such a focal point in the movie is kind of offensive to Baartman’s memory.

    1. Agree completely. I just feel like the movie could have been so much different and could have affected people in all-together different way. After all, her story is one of those that has the ability to absolutely shock people when you try and explain it to ppl who’ve never heard of the Hottentot Venus before. It could really cause ppl to reassess the current state of the hyper-sexed American culture we currently live with. That is not to say there’s anything at all wrong with sex or in the celebration of sexuality in general, but what is often the case in the way it’s celebrated on Television and Media in general today is in a way that sort of promotes sex as simply a form of domination and not an act of pleasure for both partners or even intimacy. Anyways, sorry for rambling and thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment as always!

      1. No doubt…I welcome the discussion. When I first started watching it I kept thinking how if they wanted to political license with anything they could have done more with Baartman’s character. I enjoyed the performance the actress gave; however they didn’t give her much to work with.

        Like they could have did more to show why she allowed those things to happen to her. The entire story was told about her and did not give any insight (I know there isn’t much historically about her feelings but that’s where the fiction could have come in). As I was watching I just kept thinking ‘I don’t get her. It doesn’t make sense.’ For example how she goes from refusing to remove her loincloth with the scientists and then less than 15 minutes later she’s allowing herself to be fondled by a room full of people and then ultimately into prostitution. They could have showed how she emotionally came to that place.

        They also didn’t really show or illustrate why she did the exhibit. Was she promised fame and fortune? Did she really want to play music and sing? Did she not want to be a servant? It was just empty and did nothing to connect us with Baartman.

        My favorite moment was when she refused to unrobe for the scientists and then she storms out and goes back to the one painter who had kept the others from forcing her to remove her loincloth. It was the most human she seems in the entire movie.

        I also agree with you that her story is fascinating and it illustrates so much about who we are as a country and how we have gotten to this place in terms of hyper-sexuality, colonialism, fetishism, and the objectification of the Black female body. It could have so much more powerful.

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