Case study: Saartjie Baartman

How the ‘Hottentot Venus’ from South Africa was put on show in England

Drawing of 'Hottentot Venus'

A female Hottentot, possibly Saartjie ‘Sarah’ Baartman, with a disease (steatopygy), which results in a protuberance of the buttocks due to an abnormal accumulation of fat.

CC BY

Wellcome Library, London

Born in 1789 in South Africa’s Cape Colony, Saartjie Baartman was brought to England in 1810 by a British Army medical officer, who saw an opportunity to make money by putting her on show, exploiting her distinctive, large buttocks, typical of Khoisan people.

The ‘Hottentot Venus’ became an instant celebrity. Pored over by the public and physicians alike, her indignities did not end with her death: her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were displayed in Paris’s Musée de l’Homme until 1974. In 2002 her remains were returned to South Africa at the request of Nelson Mandela.

The Hottentot Venus is a potent symbol of Europe’s lurid fascination with Africa and womanhood. She was dressed provocatively, the personification of lust and powerful, primeval emotion. She also stands as testimony to the appalling mistreatment of Africa and Africans.

In her day Saartjie Baartman would not have been seen as unusual. Today a large posterior may be perceived as a celebration of African womanhood – in Côte d’Ivoire the hit song ‘Bobaraba’ (Big bottom) swept the nation in 2008. Ivorian footballers even adopted the dance for goal celebrations during the 2008 African Cup of Nations.

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Topics:
Health, infection and disease, Medicine, History
Issue:
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development