African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus: A non-fiction review

African Queen by Rachel HolmesThe Hottentot Venus exhibit–promising to present a rare African woman from the Hottentot region for public view–opened in London in 1810 to an expectant audience waiting to see the new curiosity otherwise known as Saartjie (“Saar-key”) Baartman. Saartjie’s skills as a performer combined with her particularly large buttocks and allusions to her supposedly extended labia only added to the exhibit’s appeal to rich (white) Londoners.

According to Rachel Holmes, author of African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus (2007), Saartjie Baartman is one of South Africa’s most widely known historical figures. Everyone in South Africa knows Saartjie’s name and story.

Born in 1789, Saartjie was illegally transported to England by her master Hendrik Cesars, a free black, and Cesar’s employer military doctor Alexander Dunlop. Once in London, Saartjie debuted as the Hottentot Venus. Singing and dancing and generally exhibiting herself in “tribal” attire before fashionable Londoners in the audience, Saartjie was, Holmes writes, “got up like a fetish and a showgirl.” It also helped that Lord Granville, a well-known politician of the time, had a large posterior similar to Saartjie’s. Thanks to this combination of otherness and entertainment disguised as scientific curiosity, Saartjie became England’s most well known black entertainer of her time.

Her fame covered the darker fact that Saartjie was “literally a scientific object,” Holmes said. This fact was painfully obvious after her death in 1815 when renowned French scientist Georges Cuvier supervised Saartjie’s dissection. Her skeleton, brain, genitals and full plaster casts of her body remained in the collection of Paris’ Museum of Natural History until 2002 when they were returned to South Africa for a proper burial.

In the 189 years between her death and burial, Holmes says, Saartjie became a “living ancestor” in South Africa, “a representative figure in the struggle for women’s equality in South Africa.” This book tells all of the story, the glamorous and dark aspects of Saartjie’s life. The prose flows well and is written simply, making the book a quick and informative read.

When Holmes came to Saartjie’s story she “literally had bare bones” and a variety of scientific documents from which to start her research. Unable to read or write, Saartjie was in many ways a slave during her years of performing. While many offered theories on how Saartjie must feel (abolitionists tried to persuade her to attend bible school and return to Africa; Saartjie refused in favor of promised wages and return passage at the end of six years abroad), “no one asked for her opinion.” Holmes does a good job here of imagining what Saartjie might have said if asked. The book includes a lot of inference on Holmes’ part, but not enough to make the story ring untrue.

African Queen is Holmes’ second biographical work (her first was Scanty Particulars, which tells the story of James Barry–a British doctor who was likely a woman, or hermaphrodite, living as a man). Holmes says that she chooses to write historical and biographical works because “truth is always more curious than fiction.”

She also felt compelled to tell the stories of those who did not have a hand in writing history, namely the people who were not privileged, literate or otherwise empowered during their lives. These ideas of fact and fiction converged when Apartheid ended in South Africa, giving citizens the opportunity to “uncover our history and unravel the fictions that were sold as reality,” Holmes says.

Writing African Queen took five years, including extensive research in South Africa and Europe. When asked how she found all of her material–describing the experiences of a woman who was never interviewed and who left behind no personal writings–Holmes said, “If you work hard enough you can go back two hundred years. You can find the information.”
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus

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