19th Century Kim: ‘Hottentot Venus’ sparked global scandal 200 years before Miss Kardashian

Kim Kardashian may have very nearly ‘broken the internet’ this week with shocking photographs of her brazenly showing off her oiled bare bottom.

But nearly two hundred years ago, a similar posterior was put on show to the prurient amusement of Europeans that caused a scandal that reached around the world.

Sarah ‘Saartjie’ Baartman came from a herding community of the indigenous Khoisan people in what is now known as the Eastern Cape, the remote, rural part of South Africa.

The Khoisan, sometimes referred to as Bushmen or Hottentots, were the original inhabitants of southern Africa who suffered under both European colonialists and Nguni African tribesmen who came to the area from eastern and central Africa.

What made them physiologically distinct were their pronounced buttocks and Asiatic eyes. As hunter gatherers their bodies would go through periods where food availability varied dramatically.

During bountiful times, their bodies would store fat in the buttock area often resulting in pronounced backsides.

It was one of many physical differences that European arrivals in southern African would use as grounds to emphasise their difference from the indigenous people – whom they categorised as more primitive and less evolved.

Born around 1790, Baartman’s home area was then being ravaged by a series of frontier wars and skirmishes, sometimes within the local African tribes, on other occasions involving white adventurers pushing out from Cape Town.

Baartman’s future husband and her father were both killed in a commando raid that left her homeless.

Little is known about this period of her life, although the economic pull of the city at the bottom of Africa meant she ended up there working as a house servant, effectively a slave, for a family in Cape Town.

The physiques of Africa’s indigenous people had long interested white colonialists and in Baartman they had an object of great curiosity.

Although just 4ft 7in tall, Baartman’s bottom was particularly well-developed, something that led to her being taken to London in 1810 as ‘property’ part-owned by a British military doctor, Alexander Dunlop, to be shown-off on stage as a freak.

There was no volition in any of this. The slave trade in Britain and its empire had just been outlawed by abolitionists but the keeping of slaves, exploiting them at the whim of the ‘owner’ was still legal.

Dubbed the ‘Hottentot Venus’, her first appearance on stage in St James, today the heart of London’s clubland, was well-attended, deliberately spun up by promoters to fit in to every African cliché, the stage a muddle of rainforest and savannah iconography.

‘The Hottentot Venus – just arrived…from the banks of the river Gamtoos, on the borders of Kaffraria, in the interior of South Africa, a most correct and perfect specimen of that race of people,’ ran an advertisement carried in national newspapers.

Entrance was to be charged at 2 shillings, then a considerable sum.

But the audience was there for only one main reason and this the promoters did not let them down on, forcing Baartman to wear a figure-hugging, skin-tight outfit that accentuated all her curves.

The costume was deliberately suggesting, playing up to the white prejudices about sexually-unrefined black natives.

Accounts of her first appearance on stage referred to the strings of ostrich-egg shell fragments failing to conceal completely her nipples.

Rumours that African beauties were ‘male’ in their love of smoking were played up to. Baartman had a lit pipe in her mouth when she first stepped onto the stage.

Her appearance sparked something of a riot with female members of the audience jumping up to pinch her skin and poke her impolitely while muttering about whether her anatomy was ‘real’.

A man poked her with his walking cane like an exhibit in a museum.

The promoters fed into this with innuendo about her genitals which were rumoured also to be over-developed, whisking her off stage after her first appearance to tantalize bigger crowds next time she appeared.

She was paraded as the opposite of what a ‘normal’ Caucasian female is. Ironically, within a few decades European women had begun wearing a bustle, a framework worn under a dress that made their bottoms seem bigger.

Together with a corset, the overall effect was to accentuate the backside, waist and breasts which had become an idealised form of sexual identity.

It’s unknown whether Baartman was the inspiration for such a look, but some modern academics have argued she was.

After arriving in London with Dr Dunlop and her other co-owner, Hendrik Cesars, Baartman lived in the same house as the two men in York Street, just off Jermyn Street in St James.

Within a few years, she had become a cause célèbre for anti-slavery campaigners, an icon for exploitation across racial and gender lines.

Their campaigning did not save her from being sold in 1814 to a Frenchman who showed her off to audiences on the other side of the Channel. There were rumours of alcoholism and syphilis before she died in December 1815.

Even in death the exploitation continued with a surgeon removing and preserving her genitals while artists sketched her extensively.

Her genitals remained on display in Paris until the 1970s along with her skeleton.

It was only in 2002, after a personal appeal by Nelson Mandela, who also hailed from the Eastern Cape, that her mortal remains made it home to South Africa for official burial.

By that time Baartman was an icon for racial and sexist exploitation.

‘The story of Sarah Baartman is the story of the African people of our country in all their echelons,’ Thabo Mbeki, one of South Africa’s post-apartheid presidents, said.

A remote spot in the upper valley of the Gamtoos river was chosen for Baartman’s last resting site. A plaque marks the site today bearing a poem about her final journey:

‘I have come to take you home, where the ancient mountains shout your name.

I have made your bed at the foot of the hill, your blankets are covered in buchu and mint, the proteas stand in yellow and white – I have come to take you home where I will sing for you for you have brought me peace,’ the poem says.

Of course the case of Kim Kardashian parading her backside is very different from that of Baartman, not least because the celebrity did it voluntarily.

But there are also parallels. As it was true in the early 19th century that people are involuntarily drawn to gawp and comment on people who are different, human nature is no different today.

Source: The DailyMail

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