The Hottentot Venus

Sara Baartman, the Hottentot Venus

Baartman, born near the Great Fish River in 1789, was 21 when she left Cape Town for London in the company of an English ship’s surgeon. She was displayed in public shows throughout England, and became somewhat of a celebrity.

Her genitalia, which, according to one authority, “were assumed to include uncommonly long labia, dangling down to form what scientists called the ‘Hottentot apron’ or ‘tablier’. Baartman was at one time exhibited “like a wild beast” in a cage at Piccadilly, a move which prompted English abolitionists to take action. However, under legal interrogation at the time, Baartman claimed to have come to Europe of her own free will, and said her antics in a cage were all part of a show to make money.

Bartmann was similarly exhibited in Paris during 1815, and died there at the end of that year from an “inflammatory and eruptive malady”. One particular fascination to Europeans who flocked to watch her shows was her large, steatopygous buttocks.

After her death in Paris in 1815, Baartman landed under the knife of the leading French anatomist of the day, Baron Cuvier. He had her body cast in wax, dissected, and her skeleton articulated. Her genitalia and brain were preserved, and displayed at the Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris until as recently as 1974 when her remains were transferred to her homeland near Capetown, RSA.