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

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9780691135809: 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 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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"Finally, an authoritative account of the mythologized life of Sara Baartman. The meticulously researched subject comes to life in the hands of historians Crais and Scully, who skillfully negotiate the pitfalls of writing historical biography. The authors make a delicate distinction between the woman, Sara Baartman, and the iconic Hottentot Venus, in this elegantly written, passionate, compassionate, and carefully contextualized study, in which their findings are nevertheless unflinchingly presented. Magnificent--an outstanding contribution to South African culture, past and present."--Zoë Wicomb, author of You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town


"Crais and Scully have produced a definitive study of Sara Baartman and the many lives of the so-called Hottentot Venus. This is a wonderful book that has both intellectual interest and emotional power--I think it will be established as the authoritative account."--Elizabeth Elbourne, McGill University


"An eloquently written story demonstrating meticulous archival research, this book makes an important contribution to scholarly debates about biography. Using a range of previously unrecovered sources, Crais and Scully apply their theoretical insights about 'heterography' to the life of Sara Baartman, moving well beyond her role as the Hottentot Venus by reclaiming her life in the fullness of lived experience."--Kerry Ward, Rice University


"In the very act of demonstrating the impossibility of knowing Sarah Baartman, the authors of this remarkable book have restored her humanity. This is less a biography than an anti-biography, a searing work of social history that acknowledges the deep silence that surrounds so much of human history. A richly researched and deeply moving work."--Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History


About the Author:

Clifton Crais is professor of history at Emory University. He is the author of "The Politics of Evil". Pamela Scully is professor of women's studies and African studies at Emory University. She is the author of "Liberating the Family?"

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