Barbara Chase-Riboud's Hottentot Venus

Barbara Chase-Riboud's Hottentot Venus

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For this book report, I choose the book written by Barbara Chase-Riboud called Hottentot Venus. This book is about a real female from the KhoeKhoe nation and her tragic life. This Young Khoisan, Ssehura, is an orphan in South Africa around the 1700s. After becoming a slave by a Dutch Afrikaner, her name changed to Saartjie (means Little Sarah in Dutch.) As the story goes on, it explains more of Saartjie’s culture, which includes the grooming to be more desirable for marriage. In Khoisan’s culture, female massage their buttocks with special ointment so they will swell, and their genitalia are also stretched. Because of this, Saartjie becomes a physical curiosity and sexual fetish to her white master. Later on, the white master is persuaded by an Englishman to send her to London to become a sideshow sensation. There, along with other “things-that-never-should-never-have-been-born,” she becomes known as “Hottentot Venus.” The story moved on until the end where Saartjie speaks as a dissected corpse stripped of her womanhood by scientists determined to confirm her as the missing link in the Great Chain of Being.

The book is opened with a Heroine’s Note to tell us more about how the name Hottentot comes to be. It is around 1619, where the Portuguese discovers the KhoeKhoe nation in the Eastern Coast of South Africa. The Portuguese then are followed by the Dutch who named the Khoisan, Hottentot, which means “stutterer” in Dutch because of
the way the Khoisan’s language sounds. Dutch are the ones who introduced the clan to private properties, land theft, and fences. The English succeeds the Dutch, and they organized the Khoisan into categories of Hottentots, Negroes, and Bushmen, while claming themselves and others like them white.

On January 1816, the story is opened on the day of Saartjie’s Birthday which also falls on the day of New Year. Since it is a holiday, the circus in Paris or what Saartjie calls “the freak show” close. In this chapter we learn that Saartjie has serious illness, where she can be burning with fever and her chest would be in pain while she is coughing out blood. She has never heard of this kind of sickness in her clan and only until her white servant, Alice Unicorn, tells her about it that she finally understands. Saartjie then move on to describing the freak show and how she has to stay in an eight-by-twelve-foot bamboo cage, almost naked in the cold, surrounded by white faces showing all looks of pity, horror, and terror.

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September 1792, Saartjie’s recollection was that her mother, Aya Ma, a woman about 26 years of age, is sitting on a beach watching all her seven children. It is about when she is almost four that her mother is killed by one of the raid, as her severed head rolls and stopped by the edge of water. These raids are hunting sports for the Englishmen and will decapitate anyone in the way. After her death, Saartjie’s father is too shocked, and at the end he divides all the children among the relatives. Five years after that tragedy, the father is also killed by the same English landlords for trespassing. Saartjie has now becomes a complete orphan, and her aunt sells her to a Wesleyan missionary, the Reverend Cecil Freehouseland. He was the one to name her Saartjie, and around that time she was nine. His kindness and generosity towards her makes her fall deeply in love with him. The happiness soon ends, for the Reverend died suddenly of Cholera. In the will, Saartjie is freed and should have been awarded ten pounds, but the reverend’s family never gave it to her, they only took her back to the clan. Saartjie is about thirteen when she returns to her aunt, and that is approaching the age of marriage. Here is where we learn that the clan’s tradition. Female’s bottom parts are massaged with butter and secret swelling ointments until the spring one foot from the curve of the spine. They then are fed peanut oils, corn porridge and honey to add more pounds to thighs above the knees. Another important part of the tradition is the insertion of pebble to stretch the delicate membranes of the vagina. After following through all the traditions, Saartjie marries a first cousin, Kx’au, as a husband. Around this time, the Dutch is too busy to raid any Khoisan, for they have a war with the English. The newlywed is happy until Kx’au mysteriously dies in the bush of a gunshot wound. Because of the trauma, the newly conceived baby came out prematurely and died after a few months. Not able to handle anymore murders, Saartjie decides to leave for Cape Town. The clan’s rainmaker warned her not to go; however, Saartjie’s mind was already settled.

July 1805, Saartjie decides to leave for Cape Town, which is a twenty-three-day journey on foot. When she gets there, everyone starts pushing her off the sidewalks and insults her. Later on she learned from her old orphanage’s guardian, Bantu, that some Hottentots in Namibia have been killing whites, and for that all Hottentots are banned from the city, except servants and ones with passes. After staying one day in the orphanage, a lady who replaced Reverend Freehouseland, Mistress Van Loott, finds Saartjie a new master. Her job now is to take care of three of Colonel Caesar’s children, which makes Saartjie very happy, that is until the Colonel takes out his Penis and wants her to kiss it. Not being able to perform it, the colonel just went on and gropes her backside, and after that pretends that nothing has happened.
February 1806, Saartjie starts working with the Colonel’s family. She explains more about the family’s past and how they are like. The Colonel’s real name is Peter Caesar, and said to have KhoeKhoe blood in him. His grandfather had bet all lands he has owned and lost it all. Now the family is not what you can call rich. His wife, Alya, is what people nowadays call a neat freak. She is afraid to touch, breath, and smell dirt. Servants have to be ten feet away from her so they will not pass the dirt. Peter Caesar also has a younger brother, Heinrich, who lives there about half of the year. After working about four years peacefully, Heinrich makes a handsome offer to Peter on selling Saartjie to him. After Peter agrees, the first night Heinrich owns her, Heinrich quickly raped her, and at the end promised to never touch her ever again.
April 1809, it is the first time that Alexander William Dunlop meets with Hendrick Caesar to talk about Saartjie. He is the one who tries and convinces the Caesars to bring Saartjie to London. According to him, bringing Saartjie to England will be a great show for the English since she will be the first Hottentot to set foot there. Hendrick at first refuses the offer, thinking that both Saartjie and his sister-in-law will decline. Hendrick and his sister-in-law easily fall for Dunlop’s sweet talk. He keeps reminding the two, of the great fortune the English will pay to see Saartjie. After the two people are convinced, Dunlop moves into convincing Saartjie by seducing and sweet talking her of freedom. One day, Dunlop goes to see her, to once more convince her to go to England. He tells her that there is no more slavery there, and she will be safe there. All this talk do not convince her of going, until Dunlop tells her that he is in love with her and they should marry and move there with him. The amount of marriage dowry he shows her and all the talks made it hard for her to say no, and finally gave in. She and Dunlop petition for her passport to go to England, and she receives one under the name of Sarah Baartman.
May 1810, Sarah finally stands on the HMS Exeter’s deck, ready to depart for England. They are sailing for about eight weeks and on that last week, they experience a large storm, which wrecks the ship and requires them to make an unexpected stop at St. Helena. It is around September 1810 that they arrive in London. Both Dunlop and Hendrick right away look for the famous collector and exhibitionist, Mr. William Bullock. After seeing Sarah, though amaze and curious, Bullock refuses the offer of buying her. He claims it to be inhumane to exhibit human being in an animal museum. After being refused, Hendrick takes matter into his own hands and rents out an exhibition hall at 225 Piccadilly. The show is a success. Men and Women come, curious and disgusted at the same time; some might even feel sorry, yet glad that they are not the ones being exhibited. Sarah grew cold as more and more people come to see her, who is practically naked, as they laugh and humiliate her.
October 1810, a man, half white and half black named Reverend Robert Wedderburn, sees with his own eyes for the first time how Sarah is being ridiculed. He is a part of the African Institution, where they protect African slaves and the mistreatment of them. After he confronts both Dunlop and Hendrick, he decides not to trust them both and bring Sarah to court for the truth. There, Sarah is being asked whether she really is not a slave and she’s doing all the humiliating performances by her own will. Sarah of course stays true to Dunlop, the man who asks her hand in marriage, and rejects all the help offered by the African Institution.
June 1812, Sarah and her two masters finally arrive at Manchester, the burial place of her first love, Reverend Freehouseland. The city is dark, filled with smokes from all the factories around. As they enter the gate, a woman in rags jumps out begging for a job. Though none of the masters respond, Sarah stops the cart and took the woman in. She is Alice Unicorn, the woman who later becomes Sarah’s best friend and also servant. Later on, both masters are so happy of all the money they gain, they decide to gamble. In that game, both lose their shares of Sarah to Frenchman named Réaux. Around September 1814, Réaux decides to go back to France. There, Sarah once again becomes extremely popular. More and more humiliations draw Sarah to be addicted to Morphine and alcohol.
March 1815, we can see the growing curiosity of Baron Cuvier in Sarah. She and Réaux is invited to the King’s Botanical Gardens, mainly for the purpose of studying her in the naturalist meeting. There, famous scientists and artists gather in a tent watching and studying the almost naked Hottentot. One of the artists, Master Tiedman, is the only one to see her as human and feels sorry. The more Sarah is humiliated, she runs straight to drinking, by now her health is worst than ever.
January 1816, Sarah finally passes away, and her body was sold for “science” to Baron Cuvier. Her body was cut open to study, and her Hottentot apron was passed around, releasing scientists of their curiosity of the famous apron. Not Until August 2002 did Sarah’s body return to Africa.
In my conclusion, this story made me realize how evil mankind can be to each other if they were different. The humility Sarah felt all those years caused her death, and that still wasn’t enough. Scientists went to a great length to widen their knowledge of a culture, even in a cost of a life. This book taught me plenty about the KhoeKhoe culture, and what suffering they had to go through.
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