The Sad Story of a Woman Exhibited for Her Large Buttocks
In 1984, Nelson Mandela petitioned for the remains of the young woman to be returned to Africa in order to give her a decent burial.
This story took place in the nineteenth century, at the time of unreason, when slavery engraved pitiful stories. In this one you will get to know the sad story of Saartjie Baartman, a young woman put on public display due to suffering from a genetic abnormality.
Abduction and slavery
Saartjie Baartman was 20 years old and was preparing for a normal life in her village. She belonged to the African ethnic group of Khoikhoi, people who were accustomed to living off the land, their animals and the deeply entrenched habits of their religion. This young woman knew nothing of what was beyond the horizon of her beautiful land of Africa, a continent long attacked and humiliated by Europeans. Her life changed radically the day she was led off by Hendrik Cezar and Alexander Dunlop, two Frenchmen who saw in the body of Saartje a feature that would earn them big money.
This young woman suffered from what is now known as Steatopygia, a very common disease among African tribes such as the Khoisan (foraging San aka Bushmen and the pastoral Khoi previously known as Hottentots) and some Bantu peoples, and which is just an abnormal accumulation of fat in the buttocks. Something that is also common for all those suffering from morbid obesity. But the case of Saartje was apparently very striking, and these two men saw in this girl a way to get rich by displaying her in London theaters and fairs.
The “Black Venus”
They called her the Black Venus or the “Hottentot Venus”, which referred to the people and ethnicity from which she came. Without really knowing how or why, Saartje found herself, in just a few days, on the stages of various theaters in London. The show was both rudimentary and humiliating. She had to stand naked before the audience and simply display her form before all those who attended, whose eyes were filled with morbid anticipation. Most of the audience, as was to be expected, were men. Gentlemen of different social classes who did not hesitate to pay high prices to see the young Hottentot and her large buttocks.
Night after night for four long years the same episode was repeated again and again, a true psychological torture for this woman who unwittingly and unwillingly became a fairground attraction. The men who enslaved her became rich so fast that they did not hesitate to repeat the experience in other cities. So, after four years they went to Paris. Again they had considerable success; the evil, curious and hungry looks for the abnormality of young Saartje, these men willingly used her for paid public performances but also wanted to use her for private functions.
It was here where she was observed better and where her “owners” received more money. Fortunately, they soon heard the voices of abolitionists who saw in the performance an unforgivable humiliation and a depraved act that should be banned immediately.
Hendrik Cezar and Alexander Dunlop defended themselves against the criticism with the simple comment that Saartje acted of her own free will because she wanted to. And they proved this with the contract she had signed. But this document was written in Dutch, a language that this young woman, of course, did not know at all.
The end of a life of misery
Criticism of the spectacle of the Black Venus became more continuous, so that the owners were forced to shut it down and to sell Saartjie. She was sold to a French dealer who wanted to take advantage of the girl’s fame and exert influence over her.
… for a darker and more humiliating prospect. He organized private shows where he displayed her again, in clubs of the Parisian streets where she was used in prostitution. For all the men who wished, they could have sex with the girl with large buttocks, with the famous Venus Hottentot.
That was how she spent several years until little by little all this world of misery and unhappiness ended up affecting her health. It is unknown what the exact cause of her death was, but it’s not too hard to imagine… syphilis, tuberculosis, pneumonia and of course, sadness. An immense sadness to a life she could never understand.
At this point you may think that her life finally came to rest after her death. But it did not, not at all. After her death, the body of Saartje was dissected to again be exhibited, this time at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. They exhibited her brain, her genitals and her skeleton. And there it stayed until the 1970s, when it was finally decided to preserve that testimony of human cruelty and all that slavery meant for our society.
The true rest for Saartjie Baartman came when Nelson Mandela, in 1984, petitioned for the remains of this young woman to be returned to Africa for a proper burial. To finally find the rest and peace she deserved, in that land that had seen her birth and from which she should never have left. The woman with large buttocks, or this Black Venus, is another example of the histories that should never have happened and that, most certainly, should not be repeated.