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Searching for Sara Baartman

In a transatlantic detective hunt, Johns Hopkins alumnus Clifton Crais and his wife and research partner, Pamela Scully, searched for the real person behind the icon known as the Hottentot Venus.

By Susan Frith

Opening photo courtesy Mary Evans Picture Library Two centuries ago, in a small room off colorful Piccadilly Street, the ladies and gentlemen of London shelled out two shillings apiece to gape upon a "Phenomenon of Nature." The subject was a pipe-smoking woman from South Africa named Sara Baartman. Most knew her by her stage name, the Hottentot Venus.

As Venus turned around on the stage, Londoners marveled over her ample bottom and wondered about the size of other parts hidden from view. For a little extra, you could poke her with your fingers or a stick, notes Clifton Crais, A&S '84 (MA), '88 (PhD), a professor of history at Emory University. She didn't tell her life story, as did some other "freaks" of her day. Instead, her silent displays — complete with animal skins, face paint, and a tight body stocking — fueled European myths about people from Africa: They were primitive. Close to nature. Exotic. Hypersexual.

For the five and a half years Baartman lived in Europe, from 1810 to 1815, aristocrats ogled her, cartoonists lampooned her, a famous scientist studied and, when she died, dissected her. Since her death, the Hottentot Venus has appeared in the writings of William Makepeace Thackeray, Victor Hugo, Charles Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould, even Barack Obama's inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander. These days, activists and academics claim her as a symbol of Western exploitation and racism.

Above it all floats a ghost. The Hottentot Venus may be famous, but Sara Baartman is far less so. "There had been virtually no attempt to figure out anything about the person behind the icon," Crais says. "Those few years in Europe came to stand for her entire life. I began to wonder, Are there other possibilities?"

That question took Crais and Pamela Scully, his research partner and wife, on a detective hunt across three continents. Their four-year project culminated in a book, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography (Princeton University Press, 2009), that joins a number of popular and scholarly works on the topic. Theirs stands out for the lengths it goes to present the person behind the myth. Crais and Scully uncovered details unknown or long forgotten about her life before she became the Hottentot Venus, her personal dealings when she was off the stage, and some of the characters who fill out her story. The authors gather these facts together with a narrative style that richly evokes the smells, sights, sounds, and mores of the worlds in which Baartman dwelled. Such a biography, says T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, professor of French and African American and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt University, makes Baartman's tale "more harrowing because it says more about what we are capable of doing as human beings."

This much was known, or at least assumed, about Sara Baartman before Crais and Scully began their work: According to popular history, she was born in 1789 in the Gamtoos Valley of South Africa. When she was barely in her 20s, she was spirited away to London by an enterprising Scottish doctor named Alexander Dunlop, accompanied by a showman named Hendrik Cesars. She spent four years in Britain being exhibited. Her treatment caught the attention of British abolitionists, who tried to rescue her, but she claimed that she had come to London on her own accord. In 1814, after Dunlop's death, she traveled to Paris. With two consecutive showmen, Henry Taylor and S. Reaux, she amused onlookers who frequented the Palais-Royal. She was subjected to examination by George Cuvier, a professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History. In post-Waterloo France, sideshows like the Hottentot Venus lost their appeal. Baartman lived on in poverty, and died in Paris of illness in December 1815. After her death, Cuvier dissected her body, then displayed her remains. For more than a century and a half, visitors to the Musée de l'Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris could view her brain and skeleton in case number 33.

The Hottentot Venus was rediscovered by academia in 1981, when Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould discussed her treatment in his book blasting racial science, The Mismeasure of Man. (Afterward, museum officials discreetly tucked her remains into storage.) Crais, who had studied history and anthropology while at Johns Hopkins, became interested in Baartman in 1994, when he and Scully co-taught a course at Kenyon College on the history of the body. At the time, there was a lot of work being done in cultural and feminist studies on the significance of the Hottentot Venus in shaping the images of Africans and women.

Even in this context, though, Baartman was still a representation, not a real figure, Crais says. "There was virtually nothing out there about her family life except very vague and mostly incorrect information about her birth date."

"The Hottentot Venus now turns up in so many syllabi," says Scully, a professor of women's studies and African studies at Emory. Although, she says, a lot of good work uses the Hottentot Venus to explore how cultures interpret black women's bodies, Scully argues that contemporary scholars tend to either ignore Baartman the person or simplify her as "a noble savage" or "a terrible victim of history."

The couple set out to change that.


Their study began in the Cape Town Archives, where Scully was researching another project altogether. She became a little bored one day with the dry, Dutch-language diary in front of her, she recalls. "I took a break and thought, I'll just see if they have anything about Sara Baartman in the archives." An hour's research turned up a trove of information — a microfilm of papers held by the Irish Public Records Office titled "Female Saartje's Departure." The records had been gathered by the Cape government (then headed by an Irishman) in response to the London legal case over Baartman's slave status. Local authorities wanted to know how Saartje (Sara) had left Cape Town when a new law barred colonists from taking native-born Khoekhoe (like herself) outside the colony. (Dunlop had bypassed this obstacle by identifying Baartman as a Free Black when he obtained travel passes for Cesars and a "friend.")

This material, which previous researchers had not sought out, filled in details about Cesars, who, it had been little known, was a Free Black himself. It also introduced a new cast of characters into her story: Cesars' brother, Pieter, who had brought Sara from her home on the Eastern Cape; Cesars' wife, Anna Staal, who showed hints of jealousy over his transatlantic voyage with Baartman; and Hendrik Van Jong, a poor Dutch military drummer who was likely the love of Baartman's life.

The papers, which also documented two of Baartman's pregnancies, suggested she wasn't quite the naif legend had made her out to be. Crais recounts his and Scully's first reaction: "Wow. She had lived in Cape Town from around 1795, and she had had a baby early in her life in the city. So she wasn't a kind of 'noble savage' innocent of the wider world." Which led to more questions: "What were her experiences in Cape Town? Who are these other people we've suddenly learned something about? And now that we have the dates 1795 to 1796, let's see if we can retrace her steps back to the Eastern Cape," where she grew up. "But hold it. I thought she was born in 1789, in which case she would have conceived her first child at the age of 6! OK, something's wrong here. Let's start digging."

It wasn't that simple, says Crais. "Somehow, naively, I thought the rest of the research would be as easy, and it was utterly nightmarish." Unlike many biographers whose research projects might be based on an extensive collection of letters, diaries, or public accounts, Crais and Scully had to settle for fragments. The date in a death record. The name on a property deed. A will. "Really, it was quite a detective story," Crais says.

In the town of Hankey, Crais and Scully found this mural, which citizens created to honor the woman many consider to be a mother figure for post-apartheid South Africa.
Photo by Clifton Crais

Pier M. Larson, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins, is not surprised that the researchers ran into difficulty. The only known record of Baartman's own words, he explains, is a court document, translated and paraphrased from Dutch into English. "Everything has to be constructed from documents left as a result of the colonial presence," Larson says. "This reflects a broader problem of writing the history of Africa, particularly in the period they were writing from."

One breakthrough for Crais and Scully came from a land-records database shared by University of Waterloo historian Leonard Guelke. Crais and Scully found a farm called Baartman's Fonteyn and, using Google Earth and GIS mapping technology to see whether various points of data would connect, determined that this was likely where Sara Baartman was born, Crais says. "Once we found that, we could start digging deeply into other records in that region. That led to other discoveries."

The Baartman that Crais and Scully came to know was born in the 1770s — at least a decade earlier than previously thought — in the Camdeboo, or "Green Valley," some 400 miles from Cape Town. Her people were cattle-herding Gonaqua, a subgroup of the Khoekhoe. (Hottentot is a Dutch derogative that means "to stammer" and refers to the clicking sound of the Khoisan language.) Baartman would have heard the stories of her people, seen their dances, and learned the responsibilities of womanhood, Crais and Scully write. To mark her first menstruation, she was given a tortoise shell necklace. She kept the piece with her until her death, but the way of life it represented was violently disappearing. "She was born at a time when the Gonaqua were losing their independence as a people and effectively being hunted out or subjugated and turned into indentured laborers on white farms," Crais says.

Crais and Scully discovered that after Baartman's parents died, she moved to the bustling port city of Cape Town, serving as "a slave in all but name" to a series of masters, including Cesars. In Cape Town, Baartman gave birth to three infants, all of whom died. One was fathered by Van Jong, a low-ranking drummer in the Dutch infantry. The couple lived unofficially as husband and wife for two years, until Van Jong's battalion was disbanded and he returned to Holland.

Crais and Scully's research enabled them to re-create the Cape Town Baartman would have lived in. "When the ships came in, the population of Cape Town would literally double with men, with sailors who would have an R&R break before getting back in their boats and heading back to Europe," Crais says. A large military presence added to the city's masculine atmosphere, and prostitutes were in great demand. "Our position," Crais says, "is that Sara Baartman, while in Cape Town, was basically a cosmopolitan woman who had a great deal of information on European men, including their interest in black women's bodies."

One of the men with a more mercenary interest in Baartman's body was Alexander Dunlop. Seeking to pad his paltry wages and create some insurance for his impending retirement, Dunlop cooked up a scheme to take her to London.

"In a sense she knew what she was getting into," Crais says of Baartman. "At the very moment before she goes on the ship, and in the months before, she insists she would not go to England without Hendrik Cesars coming with her. . . . But of course, as a poor woman, and as a woman, the parameters of her being able to control her life were quite narrow." As Baartman reportedly told Cesars' wife before leaving Cape Town, "Who will give me anything here?"


We'll go no more to other shows
while Venus treads the stage,
We'll go no more to other shows
while Hottentot's the rage.

As this popular ballad suggests, the Hottentot Venus captivated the public from her arrival in London in 1810. Dunlop promoted the act; Cesars, the showman, ordered Baartman around a small stage and saw to it that visitors got the view they came for. She performed, not in the European-style clothes she would have worn routinely in Cape Town, but in costume. "People came to see her because they saw her not as a person but as a pure example of this one part of the natural world," Crais says.

The earliest broadsheet announcing the show portrays her mostly nude but for an animal skin draped over one shoulder. Her accessories include a pipe, a staff, and a bold-patterned head wrap.That public image was likely one she helped fashion — her costume was a rough composite of Gonaqua customs, which Dunlop and Cesars would have known little about. "That knowledge would have to reside in Sara Baartman and her childhood living among the last of the Gonaqua," says Crais.

What's more, Crais and Scully discovered that Baartman actually held the copyright to two early publicity images. "We wrote to a whole bunch of scholars who work on the history of lithographs and the history of copyrights, and when we pointed out [Baartman's name on the copyright] to them, they were equally floored," Crais says. "It was clear that Sara Baartman was trying to shape and exert some sort of control over her presentation and her display. Whether or not she saw any money from it is a totally different matter."

As they delved into another mystery, Baartman's legal case, Crais and Scully wanted to learn as much as they could about the abolitionists who charged that Baartman had been brought to London against her will. Their correspondence revealed that their motives weren't entirely pure. Take Zachary Macaulay, who prompted the investigation. As a former plantation overseer involved in an organization accused of supporting slavery in the colony of Sierra Leone, he may have needed to mend his own reputation. The fact that Baartman foiled Macaulay's do-good efforts by informing authorities in a three-hour deposition that she came to England "by her own consent" doesn't rule out her exploitation, Crais and Scully argue. "Colonized people survived colonial cultures through dissemblance of their motives and hopes from settlers and slaveholders," they write. "Would Sara indeed have considered that it would be politically feasible for her to speak truth to power?"

As rapt as audiences were with the Hottentot Venus, many were bothered by her treatment and wrote the newspapers to complain. Assuming their objections were colored by Cesars' status as a foreigner, Dunlop released the showman, who moved across town and disappeared from the English record. But working in South Africa, Crais and Scully discovered that, soon after the London investigation, his wife describes herself as a widow in her own deposition by the Cape government. "So we hypothesize that he disappeared and may have died" in London, Crais says.

So many questions remain. Cesars' wife seemed jealous — had he had an intimate relationship with Baartman? It was well known that she had been baptized in 1811, but the researchers were intrigued by a newspaper obituary that said Baartman was also married at that time. Who was the husband — Dunlop? His signature was on the baptismal record, and it was not unheard of for promoters to marry their performers. "I literally irritated every librarian in Manchester trying to find some sort of marriage data," Crais says. In the end they couldn't confirm anything. "So many things remain mysterious and open-ended, and perhaps unknowable."


Dunlop died in Portsmouth — a relatively old man in his 50s — during the summer of 1812. It is unknown who promoted the Hottentot Venus when Baartman traveled that fall to Suffolk, but by then, patrons could see her show for half price. For two years she traveled to pleasure fairs throughout the English provinces before moving on to France.

Baartman's exhibition in Paris and her encounter with Cuvier have been well-documented, but Crais and Scully were able to add fresh contextual details about life in the city between the Napoleonic wars. They strolled through a gilded French restaurant in the Palais-Royal, where the Hottentot Venus occasionally performed. Not far away, she lived in a squalid apartment building that also housed a brothel. It "gave us a real sense of the sort of proximity between opulence and tragedy that figures a lot in our book," Crais says.

In the bacchanalian atmosphere of Paris, Baartman's promoters didn't need to concern themselves with modesty or fending off slavery charges. "By the time she gets to Paris," Crais says, "her existence is really quite miserable and extraordinarily poor. Sara was literally treated like an animal. There is some evidence to suggest that at one point a collar was placed around her neck."

It was Reaux who arranged for her to go to George Cuvier's laboratory at the Museum of Natural History for an examination. Cuvier had wanted to examine her genitals to test his theory that the more "primitive" the mammal, the more pronounced would be the sexual organs and sexual drive. Baartman refused then. But Cuvier would get his way soon enough.

The year 1815 brought rapid changes to the city. Crops failed and food prices climbed. Napoleon reclaimed power and then lost it at Waterloo in June. As the country sank into a depression, the public had less to spend on such amusements as the Hottentot Venus. Baartman's promoter was reduced to showing her at lesser venues, including a brothel, where she may also have been prostituted. The winter of 1815, the researchers discovered, was especially cold and harsh for Paris' poor. Baartman died, possibly of pneumonia, by year's end. "She seems to have been alone when she died," Scully says — one of the "crucial moments" in Baartman's life when the evidence "floats away from us."

With permission from police, Cuvier, who had amassed the world's largest collection of human and animal specimens, conducted an autopsy. First he made a cast of her body, then he preserved her brain and genitals. Even as he determined that the latter's size was the result of cultural practice, Cuvier concluded that "the Hottentots" were closer to great apes than humans. The rest of Baartman's flesh was boiled down to bones for Cuvier's collection and displayed for years afterward.

When Crais and Scully went to examine the original autopsy report, an archivist at the Musée de l'Homme got on the phone to make some inquiries. "There was a lot of chatting," Scully recalls. "Then he put down the phone, turned to us, and said, 'I'm terribly sorry. I cannot give you the document because it would cause a diplomatic incident.'" The French may have felt burned by evil-scientist representations of Cuvier, who is considered a national hero, Crais says, though the book aims for a balanced portrayal of Cuvier's scientific contributions as well as his faults.


In 2002, under pressure from South African leaders, France returned Baartman's remains to her homeland, an occasion marked by poetry, speeches, and a burial on the Eastern Cape that combined Christian and Khoekhoe practices. Within months, her grave was vandalized — possibly by ritual specialists seeking muti, or medicine. A tall metal fence went up around it. "She's buried at the top of a hill overlooking a river and citrus orchards owned by the descendants of a family that took part in the genocide of her people," Crais says. "She is behind bars in her grave, and no one goes to visit."

Sara Baartman's final resting place, on the Eastern Cape. "She is behind bars in her grave," Crais says.

Crais and Scully can't offer a fairy tale ending, but their book's last chapter provides a glimpse of hope, describing the authors' attempts to join Baartman to living members of her clan. "We wanted to return her to her family," Crais says. They searched through the indenture books for records of servants with the surname Baartman. With that information, they began to reconstruct what happened to Sara Baartman's relatives.

Records showed that a few of her siblings had entered the protection of Christian missions, where they started families of their own. Working back from the present yielded more clues. As the researchers stopped at different homes for cups of tea and chats about genealogy, Crais noted some generational differences among potential descendants. "I spoke to one young woman who must have been about 14. Her father said, 'No, I'm not sure we're related.' She said, 'Yes' — and not on the basis of any empirical data. She just wants to make a claim of sisterhood that connects her presence, and the plight of women in South Africa, with what happened to Sara Baartman." In a few cases the researchers were able to make a convincing link between Sara Baartman's relatives and Baartmans living today.

Most of those Crais and Scully interviewed live in the Eastern Cape. Their final, and most powerful interview, however, took place in a very rough suburb of Cape Flats, near Cape Town. There they met with the descendants of Abel Baartman, a respected church elder and community leader who stood up to the apartheid government in the 1960s, refusing to leave the home he had built for another one in a new township created for the "Coloured" community. Through that interview, Crais says, the authors were able to bring the story full circle, to a home "not too far from where Sara Baartman labored and loved and left her land and would not return for two centuries." For the woman who has been owned by so many — both in life and in death — it seems a fitting place to finally rest.

Susan Frith is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Florida. This is her first article for Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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