Why Europe Displayed Sara Bartman As “Hottentot Venus”

A Historical & Intellectual Context

It is plausible to postulate and argue that no African in the nineteenth-century had a greater impact on the modern European imagination than Sara Bartman as the “Hottentot Venus”.  Through her being displayed in unimaginable contexts and forms in various parts of Europe from London to Paris, Sara Bartman constructed by the ‘orientalizing’ European imagination as “Hottentot Venus” was posited as the most extreme representation of Europe’s Other. From the moment she was abducted from South Africa in 1810 into a slavery of a particular kind to her death in the streets of Paris in destitution and alcoholism in 1815, “Hottentot Venus” was postulated as symbolizing the direct opposite of European modernity and European classical beauty: in effect, she supposedly epitomized the very essence of African heathenism and the uncontestable form of African ugliness.

Displayed in cages throughout Europe as the very “object” that justified imperialism and colonialism in Africa, justifying the very necessity of Europe’s “civilizing mission” in the “Dark Continent”, “Hottentot Venus” satisfied Europe’s fantasizing anxiety about the certitude of the Self in relation to Nature. Given that Europe at this time was in a midst of a gigantic transformation from the ‘Old Ways’ of tradition to the ‘New Ways’ of modernity, this ‘historical’ need to stabilize the Self through the Other  was real; this was the time of the transformations and transitions from the ‘French’ Enlightenment to ‘English’ Romanticism: industrialism and capitalism were uprooting the social relationships and relations of the rural areas before those of the new urban areas had taken root. The English Romantic poets from Shelley to Wordsworth were searching for the poetic and natural forms by which to stabilize the Self. Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is classical in this regard. In such a context the certitudes of the Self were unhinged, and only the diametrical oppositeness of the Other could make possible their imaginary reconstruction.

It is on this modern European imaginary plane, in order to alleviate fear and anxiety, that Sarah Bartman was given the Veil and masked as the “Hottentot Venus”. It should be remembered that the imaginary reconstruction of Sara Bartman was at the same time as Napoleon’s military expeditions and pillaging of Egypt and the prefigurations of the emergence of Orientalism. Edward Said’s Orientalism says many profound things about these matters. From Napoleon’s pillaging of the material existence and spiritual conditions of the Others’ nations to the ‘pillaging’ of the body of Sara Bartman is not as distant and different as many would suppose.

The date of 1915 is more than a coincidence: it is the year in which Napoleon is definitely militarily defeated, but it is also the year of the death of Sara Bartman as well as that of “Hettentot Venus”. In fact, to be precise and exact, it is Napoleon’s imperial actions across Europe and the Other Worlds that created the intellectual and cultural environment in which Sara Bartman could be depersonalized as “Hottentot Venus”.

Again, from Hegel’s viewing of Napoleon as the Absolute Spirit riding on a horse to his fascination with the ‘Hottentot’ people and Sara Bartman is not that distant. From Kant through Hegel in Germany to Curvier in France “Hottentot Venus” symbolized the inferiority of the African race and people as well as of Other nations. It is necessary at this juncture to quote Kant’s and Hegel’s inferiorization of the African race(s) and Other people as connected to the inferiorization of Bartman’ body in accordance with European aesthetic principles of classical beauty in the form of a spectacle for the unblinking European gaze. Immanuel Kant writes the following in his Geography: “In hot countries men mature more quickly in every respect but they do not attain the perfection of the temperate zones. Humanity achieves its greatest perfection with the white race. The yellow Indians have somewhat less talent. The negroes are much inferior and some of the peoples of the Americas are well below them. . . All inhabitants of hot lands are exceptionally lazy; they are also timid and the same two traits characterize also folk living in the far north. Timidity engenders superstition and in lands ruled by Kings leads to slavery. Ostoyaks, Samoyeds, Lapps, Greenlanders, etc. resemble people of hot lands in their timidity, laziness, superstition and desire for strong drink, but lack the jealousy characteristic of the latter since their climate does not stimulate their passion greatly.”

Such views have elicited a strong response from Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Moving the Centre (1993) “But racist fascism was not invented by Nazi Germany. What of the millions of Africans wantonly killed by the British, the French and the Dutch during the years of slavery and the slave trade? What about the massacres of the same peoples by the same forces in all the colonies? The Jewish holocaust was preceded by an even bigger black holocaust, and we must never forget this. Racism and racist theories to rationalise the wanton massacre of human beings had been voiced, argued out, philosophised about, aestheticised over, by a whole line of respectable artists and intellectuals of the Western world: Hume, Hegel Carlyle, Froude, and many other image-makers of the Western imagination” (p. 123).

In Decolonising the Mind (1986), Ngugi wa Thiong’o quotes the following from Hegel’s Philosophy of History “Slavery is in and for itself an injustice, for the essence of humanity is freedom; but for this man must be matured. The gradual abolition of slavery is therefore wiser and more equitable than its sudden removal.” Responding to this, Ngugi in Decolonising the Mind writes the following: “In references to Africa in the introduction to his lectures, Hegel gives historical, philosophical, rational expression and legitimacy to every conceivable European racist myth about Africa. Africa is even denied her own geography where it does not correspond to the myth. Thus Egypt is not part of Africa; North Africa is part of Europe. Africa proper is the especial home of ravenous beasts, snakes of all kinds. The African is not part of humanity. Slavery is good for the African. . . Hegel clearly reveals himself as the nineteenth-century Hitler of the intellect” (p. 31-32).

It is within this European historical and intellectual context that Sara Bartman was posited as “Hottentot Venus”. If European modernity rejected the Africanness of Sara Bartman on the one hand, it was more than accommodating in embracing the Africanness of Tiyo Soga, born fourteen years after her death and the first modern African intellectual in South Africa, provided that this Africanness is mediated through conversion to Christianity. Tiyo Soga’s Journals and Letters of the middle nineteenth-century were a prefiguration of the necessity of the transition from European modernities to African modernities. A whole intellectual discourse on the making of South Africa modernity in the nineteenth-century needs to be constructed around such historic figures as Sara Bartman (c. 1771-1815), Lydia Umkasetemba  and Tiyo Soga (1829-1871).

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