African Queen by Rachel Holmes
The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus

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Saartjie Baartman was twenty-one years old when she was taken from her native South Africa and shipped to London. Within weeks, the striking African beauty was the talk of the social season of 1810–hailed as “the Hottentot Venus” for her exquisite physique and suggestive semi-nude dance. As her fame spread to Paris, Saartjie became a lightning rod for late Georgian and Napoleonic attitudes toward sex and race, exploitation and colonialism, prurience and science. In African Queen, Rachel Holmes recounts the luminous, heartbreaking story of one woman’s journey from slavery to stardom.

Born into a herding tribe known as the Eastern Cape Khoisan, Saartjie was barely out of her teens when she was orphaned and widowed by colonial war and forced aboard a ship bound for England. A pair of clever, unscrupulous showmen dressed her up in a body stocking with a suggestive fringe and put her on the London stage as a “specimen” of African beauty and sexuality. The Hottentot Venus was an overnight sensation.

But celebrity brought unexpected consequences. Abolitionists initiated a lawsuit to win Saartjie’s freedom, a case that electrified the English public. In Paris, a team of scientists subjected her to a humiliating public inspection as they probed the mystery of her sexual allure. Stared at, stripped, pinched, painted, worshipped, and ridiculed, Saartjie came to symbolize the erotic obsession at the heart of colonialism. But beneath the costumes and the glare of publicity, this young Khoisan woman was a person who had been torn from her own culture and sacrificed to the whims of fashionable Europe.

Nearly two centuries after her death, Saartjie made headlines once again when Nelson Mandela launched a campaign to have her remains returned to the land of her birth. In this brilliant, vividly written book, Rachel Holmes traces the full arc of Saartjie’s extraordinary story–a story of race, eros, oppression, and fame that resonates powerfully today.

From the Hardcover edition.

About Rachel Holmes

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Rachel Holmes is a writer, critic, and broadcaster. She is the author of Scanty Particulars, the biography of Dr. James Barry. A former professor of English at the University of London and the University of Sussex, Holmes divides her time between London and Cape Town.From the Hardcover edition.
Published March 25, 2009 by Random House. 176 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Travel. Non-fiction

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In 2002, these remains were returned to South Africa, where at a state funeral she was proclaimed “the nation’s grandmother.” Holmes is especially adept at explaining the period’s fascination with the Hottentot Venus, how a combination of curiosity—some of it genuinely scientific—myth, legend and...

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The New York Times

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Today, in the hands of Rachel Holmes, a former English professor at the University of London, it is “a symbol of the alienation and degradations of colonization, lost children, exile, the expropriation of female labor and the sexual and economic exploitation of black women by men, white and black...

Jan 14 2007 | Read Full Review of African Queen: The Real Life ...

Publishers Weekly

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A celebrated ""human curiosity,"" exhibited in 1810 in London and Paris for her larger-than-average posterior, the so-called Hottentot Venus, Saartjie Baartmen, is delivered once and for all by Holmes (Scanty Particulars ) from the forces of sentimental primitivism, imperialism and scientific rac...

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