The story of Saartjie Baartman, a kidnapped South African who briefly created a sensation in Europe.
In 1809, British officer and surgeon Alexander Dunlop and his manservant Hendrik Cesars illegally transported the orphaned 21-year-old Baartman from Cape Town to London, planning to exhibit her for money. Billed as the Hottentot Venus, she appeared onstage in a flesh-toned body stocking, designed to highlight her protruding buttocks, with an embroidered pubic apron, thought to conceal the legendary extended labia of women of her tribe. An assortment of beads, shells and feathers completed the costume and, set against a backdrop of painted “African” scenery, Baartman sang, danced, played instruments and smoked a pipe. She was an immediate hit. Following a high-profile court case to determine whether her exhibition was voluntary or compelled, she toured the provinces for three years, triumphed in Paris and died in 1815. Her corpse was spirited to the Museum of Natural History for analysis, dissection and preservation of her skeleton, brain and genitals. In 2002, these remains were returned to South Africa, where at a state funeral she was proclaimed “the nation’s grandmother.” Holmes is especially adept at explaining the period’s fascination with the Hottentot Venus, how a combination of curiosity—some of it genuinely scientific—myth, legend and lust transfixed audiences. She does less well examining the story from Baartman’s perspective. Was the drummer boy who fathered her child back in South Africa black or white? How did that child die? Was Baartman pimped out by her keepers shortly before her own death, the cause of which remains unknown? Indeed, the sheer number of plausible explanations for Baartman’s abrupt demise—flu, bronchitis, alcoholism, overwork, depression—illustrates the evidentiary void plaguing the author.
Almost by itself, this thin historical record makes the case for Baartman’s wholesale exploitation, and Holmes would have done better to let that silence speak rather than freight the final chapters with a hopelessly muddled “significance” the story will not bear out.