Black Bodies on Show: The Case of the Hottentot Venus

One of the best books I’ve read recently is Kate Lister’s A History of Sex. It’s an important book on so many levels, but perhaps the most significant chapter of all is the one about the racial fetishization of Black African female and male bodies.

We think so often about colonisation from a top-down perspective. We tend to zone in on the exploitation (especially economic) of entire nations and the legacy of those practices. (Perhaps we do this deliberately. It’s easier for White people to think about the roles our ancestors played in Africa through the lens of systemic problems instead of listening to human voices).

Whatever the case, you may already be familiar with the way that our White ancestors thought about African bodies. Specifically, the idea that Black African women were promiscuous by nature; a kind of “sexual savage.” Conversely, Black African men were viewed as equally promiscuous and “bestial” in nature.[1] Theirs was an unbridled and uncontrolled sexuality that needed taming – and who better than the Brits?

I had come across these 18th and 19th-century ideas before, but one thing that was completely new to me was how Black African women were put on display for British audiences, giving them the opportunity to see this “sexual savagery” for themselves. In her book, Lister mentions the “Hottentot Venus,” a Black African woman who was put on display for six years before dying from alcoholism. As you can imagine, I had to know more about this woman.

First things first, it’s worth pointing out what the term “Hottentot” actually means. It dates from the late 17th century and was used by White Europeans for the Khoikhoi people of South Africa.[2] I find the use of the word “Venus” interesting, too. The White understanding and treatment of Black African female bodies was not about praise or worship, but rather the exotic and unusual. Let’s not forget that Venus had her share of lovers, too, so there’s a nod to that association between Black women and promiscuity.

It should also be noted that there was more than one “Hottentot Venus” in the early 19th century, which tells you everything you need to know about how White men viewed these Black African women on an individual level. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t). The advert below dates from 1810 when the Hottentot Venus was likely a Khoikhoi woman called Sartjee Baartman. Sartjee was just one of many Black African women displayed in Europe but was perhaps the best-known.[3]

What is interesting about the “Hottentot Venus” from 1840 is that she was not brought to England from South Africa. In fact, this Venus, Elizabeth Magnas, was born in London in 1810 to a White mother and Black father. Details of her life are incredibly scant and, like so many women at that time, we learn about her through the lens of others. Her voice is absent from historical record.

What we do know, however, is that she left London and had three children by a man called John Crockett. It was this man who became her ‘keeper’ and displayed her publicly around Leeds and other cities.

As we might expect, there are plenty of details about her physical appearance. At her inquest, Elizabeth was described as:

A perfect Hottentot … having thick, coarse, curly hair, and a perfectly black skin … She was a woman of extraordinary strength and was in the habit of lifting heavy weights, equal to the weight of three men, on her back and swinging round with them.[4]

Exactly what life was like for Elizabeth as a “Hottentot” is made difficult by the lack of sources. Because there were more than one “Hottentot women” on display in England at this time, it’s almost impossible to attribute any description directly to her. We must be conscious of the fact that these were women whose real names and experiences did not matter. They were objectified and treated like exotic pets, as this description from 1839 makes clear:

He (the visitor) found her surrounded by many persons, some females! One pinched her, another walked around her; one gentleman poked her with his cane; and one lady employed her parasol to ascertain that all was, as she called it, ‘natural.’ This inhuman baiting the poor creatures bore with sullen indifference, except upon some great provocation when she seemed inclined to resent brutality … on these occasions, it required all the authority of the keeper to subdue her resentment.[5]

I don’t need to point out the indignities and humiliations - not to mention physical assaults – that this woman daily suffered. This may explain why Elizabeth turned to alcohol. She had been unwell for six months before her death and had received medical advice and treatments at “various towns.” Ultimately, the cause of death was “inflammation” caused by “habits of excessive drinking.” This put an end to the rumours of foul play that were circulating around Leeds when Elizabeth died. These rumours were caused by John Crockett’s association with another woman whom he married only two weeks after Elizabeth’s death. This woman was present at the inquest and described as a “Canadian giantess, betwixt six and seven feet high.”[6] Clearly, John was already thinking about Elizabeth’s replacement.

Colonialism might have ended, but the hyper-sexualisation of the Black female and male bodies has not. This is part of White colonialism’s dark legacy and we must confront it and be accountable for it.

If you want to read more about the hyper-sexualisation of the Black body today, here are some starting points:

Hyper-Sexualisation of Black Women in the Media: Annalycia D. Matthews.

Hyper-Sexualisation: The Realities of My Black, Female Body: Vanessa Ntinu.

On the sexual double standard experienced by Black women:

Black Women are Still Being Held Back: Rachel Mantock.

[1] Lister, A History of Sex, pp. 68-69. [2] Lister, p. 69. [3] Lister, p. 70. [4] Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 29 November 1840. [5] Bucks Herald, 2 November 1839. [6] Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 29 November 1840.

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