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Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography

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Displayed on European stages from 1810 to 1815 as the Hottentot Venus, Sara Baartman was one of the most famous women of her day, and also one of the least known. As the Hottentot Venus, she was seen by Westerners as alluring and primitive, a reflection of their fears and suppressed desires. But who was Sara Baartman? Who was the woman who became the Hottentot Venus? Based Displayed on European stages from 1810 to 1815 as the Hottentot Venus, Sara Baartman was one of the most famous women of her day, and also one of the least known. As the Hottentot Venus, she was seen by Westerners as alluring and primitive, a reflection of their fears and suppressed desires. But who was Sara Baartman? Who was the woman who became the Hottentot Venus? Based on research and interviews that span three continents, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus tells the entwined histories of an illusive life and a famous icon. In doing so, the book raises questions about the possibilities and limits of biography for understanding those who live between and among different cultures. In reconstructing Baartman's life, the book traverses the South African frontier and its genocidal violence, cosmopolitan Cape Town, the ending of the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, London and Parisian high society, and the rise of racial science. The authors discuss the ramifications of discovering that when Baartman went to London, she was older than originally assumed, and they explore the enduring impact of the Hottentot Venus on ideas about women, race, and sexuality. The book concludes with the politics involved in returning Baartman's remains to her home country, and connects Baartman's story to her descendants in nineteenth- and twentieth-century South Africa. Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus offers the authoritative account of one woman's life and reinstates her to the full complexity of her history.


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Displayed on European stages from 1810 to 1815 as the Hottentot Venus, Sara Baartman was one of the most famous women of her day, and also one of the least known. As the Hottentot Venus, she was seen by Westerners as alluring and primitive, a reflection of their fears and suppressed desires. But who was Sara Baartman? Who was the woman who became the Hottentot Venus? Based Displayed on European stages from 1810 to 1815 as the Hottentot Venus, Sara Baartman was one of the most famous women of her day, and also one of the least known. As the Hottentot Venus, she was seen by Westerners as alluring and primitive, a reflection of their fears and suppressed desires. But who was Sara Baartman? Who was the woman who became the Hottentot Venus? Based on research and interviews that span three continents, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus tells the entwined histories of an illusive life and a famous icon. In doing so, the book raises questions about the possibilities and limits of biography for understanding those who live between and among different cultures. In reconstructing Baartman's life, the book traverses the South African frontier and its genocidal violence, cosmopolitan Cape Town, the ending of the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, London and Parisian high society, and the rise of racial science. The authors discuss the ramifications of discovering that when Baartman went to London, she was older than originally assumed, and they explore the enduring impact of the Hottentot Venus on ideas about women, race, and sexuality. The book concludes with the politics involved in returning Baartman's remains to her home country, and connects Baartman's story to her descendants in nineteenth- and twentieth-century South Africa. Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus offers the authoritative account of one woman's life and reinstates her to the full complexity of her history.

30 review for Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Emmaline Soken-Huberty

    Not Academic, but Stirring I really enjoyed this book. After the name Sara Baartman come up in my Gender, Power, and Sexualities in Africa class, I got this from the campus library and read it fairly quickly. It's not an academic book, there are so few reliable sources on Sara Baartman and so the book resorts to lots of speculation and emotional ramblings that must be taken with a grain of salt. It is very much "a story," but the authors acknowledge that and the concluding chapter "The Ghosts of Not Academic, but Stirring I really enjoyed this book. After the name Sara Baartman come up in my Gender, Power, and Sexualities in Africa class, I got this from the campus library and read it fairly quickly. It's not an academic book, there are so few reliable sources on Sara Baartman and so the book resorts to lots of speculation and emotional ramblings that must be taken with a grain of salt. It is very much "a story," but the authors acknowledge that and the concluding chapter "The Ghosts of Sara Baartman" does an excellent job of reminding the reader to be wary of creating a fiction where there are gaps in fact. However, more people need to know who Sara Baartman is and her impact on society, or rather, the impact that the racist West's perception of Sara has had. That is why I like this book. It is Sara Baartman's ghost story - a story of a real woman pieced together as clearly as possible with the fragments of history - and a biography - an account of the Venus Hottentot, a created oddity that the English and French gawked at. Sara Baartman may be gone and her remains buried in South Africa, but the racist image of the Venus Hottentot is still impacting popular Western culture, not in just the area of race, but also female sexuality. After reading, I went through several rap song lyrics and was shocked at how many lines conjured up thoughts of the book. I classified this book as history, but it's not just something that happened a long time ago. It's still happening.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kirsten

    This book was assigned in one of my classes, and the professor had not yet read the book herself, so none of us knew what we were getting into before reading this book. We all thought it would be an interesting topic, and were excited to begin reading it, but once we actually did, we all kind of regretted wasting precious minutes of our lives on this. First, I will say that the authors did obviously spend a lot of time researching for this book. My problem is not that there is a lack of facts. Th This book was assigned in one of my classes, and the professor had not yet read the book herself, so none of us knew what we were getting into before reading this book. We all thought it would be an interesting topic, and were excited to begin reading it, but once we actually did, we all kind of regretted wasting precious minutes of our lives on this. First, I will say that the authors did obviously spend a lot of time researching for this book. My problem is not that there is a lack of facts. The problem that I, and the rest of my class (including the professor), had was that the authors can't seem to figure out if they're writing an informative, factual account or a work of historical fiction. They keep changing between discussing factual events and saying things like "And then Sara turned off the light and went to bed and thought about what had happened to her that day" (Not an actual quote -- just paraphrasing). This may be what happens when two authors collaborate but don't tie their individual work together very well. Either way, the book was very tough to read because of this. I would have liked more factual information, and less fluff and irrelevant topics.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    One of the most exceptional history texts I have ever read. It does an excellent job of synthesizing what we know about Baartman and her world with issues of racism, classism, and sexism. It looks beyond the common wisdom that she was exploited and looks at the realities of her life and the choices she was able or unable to make. The final chapters that look at how she lived on in the field of science and in the political memory of South Africa were a wonderful ending. This book clearly demonstr One of the most exceptional history texts I have ever read. It does an excellent job of synthesizing what we know about Baartman and her world with issues of racism, classism, and sexism. It looks beyond the common wisdom that she was exploited and looks at the realities of her life and the choices she was able or unable to make. The final chapters that look at how she lived on in the field of science and in the political memory of South Africa were a wonderful ending. This book clearly demonstrates excellent scholarship and yet remains an engaging and quick read. The pace is fairly quick and the authors tell her story as just that - a story that you are enthralled to hear. Because of the depth and breadth of questions raised by this book, I would say it is ideal for historians, history students, feminists, book clubs, fans of African American studies, or anyone who enjoys biography. You will want to discuss and dissect it afterward, so be sure to loan your copy to a friend!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Cory

    Because I appear to be obsessed with the Hottentot Venus.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Sophie

    An excellent biography which sheds light on the subject’s own agency

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    There is much too much speculation and attempts to force emotions and experiences onto Sara for me to consider this book as of real academic value (an interesting read though, perhaps). For example, the authors state that since a lot of people get sea-sick, it's likely Sara did as well. Then they proceed to dramatically present an event that may or may not have happened- talking about how each wave *may* have made her want to throw up, how she *might* have been dizzy and could barely do anything There is much too much speculation and attempts to force emotions and experiences onto Sara for me to consider this book as of real academic value (an interesting read though, perhaps). For example, the authors state that since a lot of people get sea-sick, it's likely Sara did as well. Then they proceed to dramatically present an event that may or may not have happened- talking about how each wave *may* have made her want to throw up, how she *might* have been dizzy and could barely do anything but lay on her bed, etc. Their attempts to make a largely unknown and unknowable subject and her family and history more "human" to the reader is done for obvious reasons, but there is far too many 'may's' and 'might's' that are treated as 'did's' for me.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sierra Dean

    It's hard to place judgement on this one since it was required reading for a class I'm taking, but I found the writing veered between too dry, and too overly flowery. I thought a lot of the same concepts were repeated over and over to fill in the gaps between sections, which made it a slightly tedious read. All the same, the concepts of racist science, sexualization of the other, and the overall history were interesting to get a glimpse at. I'd recommend, at the very least, a read through the Wik It's hard to place judgement on this one since it was required reading for a class I'm taking, but I found the writing veered between too dry, and too overly flowery. I thought a lot of the same concepts were repeated over and over to fill in the gaps between sections, which made it a slightly tedious read. All the same, the concepts of racist science, sexualization of the other, and the overall history were interesting to get a glimpse at. I'd recommend, at the very least, a read through the Wiki article on Baartman.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Taylor

    This is a subject that needs coverage and a lot of research clearly went into it. It's tragic that Sara Baartman had so few options. Her life consisted in playing out roles that were crafted for her by others. One problem that the Crais and Sully were faced with the that the historical record lacks so much information about Sara's life. The authors' too often filled the elisions in the record with their guesses. Thus they often created history where nothing actually existed. This is a subject that needs coverage and a lot of research clearly went into it. It's tragic that Sara Baartman had so few options. Her life consisted in playing out roles that were crafted for her by others. One problem that the Crais and Sully were faced with the that the historical record lacks so much information about Sara's life. The authors' too often filled the elisions in the record with their guesses. Thus they often created history where nothing actually existed.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Schauer

    This excellent book puts the life of Sara Baartman in context, but unlike some other accounts, does not lose sight of that life itself. Expanding the chronology of Baartman's story, and giving ample time to her life in South Africa, far more formative than normally supposed. Elegantly written, deeply moving, and highly throughout provoking, this is a book about one woman, but also European imperialism, the Enlightenment, race, popular culture, and science. This excellent book puts the life of Sara Baartman in context, but unlike some other accounts, does not lose sight of that life itself. Expanding the chronology of Baartman's story, and giving ample time to her life in South Africa, far more formative than normally supposed. Elegantly written, deeply moving, and highly throughout provoking, this is a book about one woman, but also European imperialism, the Enlightenment, race, popular culture, and science.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Celeste

    Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus is a book as much about the impossibility of uncovering historical truth as it is the story of a Khoekhoe woman brought from South Africa to Europe in the 1800s. While Crais and Scully do uncover much that was previously unknown about Sara Baartman--the task they ostensibly set out to do--they also discovered the myriad ways in which persona, myth, performance, and politics shade into each other.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Erica

    This is a well researched book about Sara Baartman, an African women who was displayed in Europe in the early 1800s as the Hottentot Venus. The story is well told and brings Sara to life as a person who might have been party to some of the choices in her life as the best option available to her.

  12. 4 out of 5

    LaDonna

    This captivating tale led me on a roller coaster of an emotional journey. There were moments of sadness, anger, pride, pity, and finally resolve.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    I have issues with the authors' narrative and stylistic choices. However, an interesting addition to the literature on Sara Baartman. I have issues with the authors' narrative and stylistic choices. However, an interesting addition to the literature on Sara Baartman.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Brad

  15. 4 out of 5

    Illyria

  16. 4 out of 5

    Krystal

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sokari

  18. 4 out of 5

    Monica Olsen

  19. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn Venessa

  20. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  21. 5 out of 5

    Samantha Brown

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jane

  23. 4 out of 5

    Emily

  24. 4 out of 5

    Maddie Moore

  25. 4 out of 5

    Renee Garris

  26. 5 out of 5

    Gavin

  27. 5 out of 5

    Guoqian Li

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kat

  29. 5 out of 5

    natasha

  30. 5 out of 5

    Lena

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