In a recent post on Sara Baartman, the ‘Venus Hottentot’, I noted that she was regarded as neither black nor sexy by the European crowds who saw her exhibited in 1810.
As art historian Z. S. Strother shows, the key reason that Baartman was so fascinating to Europeans was not the fact that she was a hyper-voluptuous black woman, but rather because she was assumed to be a ‘creature without language or culture, without memory or consciousness’.
For centuries before Baartman was brought to London, her people, then called Hottentots, occupied a special place in the European imagination. Now known as the Khoikoi, they were then a nomadic nation who ranged across the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa. Given how many ships stopped to water at the Cape, her people had more contact with Europeans than any other African population during the age of exploration by sea.
Composed of a lush series of popping and clicking sounds, the Khoikoi’s language was a matter of astonishment to the Europeans who encountered them. Most of the latter assumed that the click sounds were jabber, and that the people who spoke them were bereft of true language. The fact that they were given the name ‘Hottentot’ reflected this. The word is thought to have emerged from a compound of the Dutch verbs hateren (to stammer) and tateren (to stutter). The term hottentotism still apparently appears in English and French medical dictionaries to describe extreme stuttering. Hottentot is thus a highly pejorative label, conveying the once-popular European notion that the Khoikoi could not speak properly, or indeed really speak at all.
As Strother puts it, ‘language was central in 16th and 17th-century [European] thought because it marked the common frontier separating humanity from the beasts’. Given that the ‘Hottentots’ were regarded as without language, they were thus widely represented in Europe as ‘more like beasts than men’, and were distinguished from other native Africans.
When Baartman was brought to London in the early 18th-century, then, she was not seen as a representative of African or black womanhood, but rather of this specific race of not-quite-humans: the proverbial missing link between the human and animal realms.
Z. S. Strother, ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, in Bernth Lidnfors (ed.), Africans On Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business (Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1999), 1-61.