Published on 18 September 1810, this etching of Saartjie Baartman (1789–1815), who had recently arrived in Britain and came to be known as the Hottentot Venus, testifies to the contemporary obsession with exoticism. Born among the Khoikhoi people of southern Africa, Baartman’s life is perhaps one of the most striking examples of colonial exploitation. Subjected to Dutch domination in her childhood and adolescence, she was objectified by the British in her youth, and was dehumanised by the French for the rest of her life and beyond. Histories of her display in the freak shows of London and Paris in the course of the long eighteenth century bring into focus torturous episodes of violence and humiliation. These were justified as legitimate scientific curiosity regarding her body, based on polite standards of respectability and refinement. Standing exposed on the imperial stage, Baartman’s (mis)treatment at the hands of the metropolitan populace overstepped the premises of Enlightenment virtues of dignity and propriety that were so dearly prized. The repatriation and reburial of her remains in 2002 in her homeland were acts of restoring of the vestiges of personhood that she had been denied by the western world.
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