The entry point of this blogpost is Barbara Chase-Riboud’s historical novel Hottentot Venus (2003). It’s the life story of the real Sarah Baartman, the so-called “the Hottentot Venus.” It’s also an immersive tour of turn-of-the-19th-century South Africa, England and France and a staggering work of literature. You should read it or have Robin Miles read it to you via Audible.
I’m not really interested in reviewing Hottentot Venus as a work of literary fiction, though it stands on its own merits as such. I am interested in suggesting it as a companion volume to H. Rider Haggard. I’ll get to that in a sec.
For those unfamiliar with the history, Sarah Baartman was a Khoikhoi servant brought to Europe from the Cape Colony to star in freak shows. European crowds unfamiliar with KhoiSan peoples (and Africans in general) were drawn in by Sarah’s strangeness (she was strange to them, anyway) and her proportionally remarkable backside. She was an international entertainment sensation. The scientific establishment was also drawn to her, hoping to use Sarah to ‘prove’ their pet scientific racist theories.
Sarah was Khoikhoi, one of the southern African KhoiSan peoples who speak languages notable for click consonants. Click consonants were the impetus for the racist epithet “Hottentot,” Dutch for stutterer. Over time this epithet was replaced in the Western vocabulary by “Bushmen,” but today many KhoiSan people consider this to be an offensive term as well.
A contemporary Khoikhoi man on his cell phone.
Traditionally, the Khoikhoi were nomadic herders who supplemented their diet of dairy products with hunting and gathering.* Sarah narrates this history to the reader in the early parts of the novel. Colonialism’s genocidal aspects are also at play: Sarah’s close relatives all die at the hands of colonists during her youth, which culminates in her aunt selling her to an English missionary.
My fellow fans of Allan Quatermain should be familiar with at least one other Khoikhoi individual: Hans “the Hottentot.” Hans is Allan Quatermain’s loyal servant, inherited from his father.** He’s portrayed somewhere between a wise fool and a racist caricature. He’s a child-like alcoholic who can barely control his animal nature. He is lazy and sneaky. He is very superstitious and scared of things. Of course, he’s also noble, crafty, and willing to overcome his own fear in service to his friends, but Haggard attributes Hans’ failings to his race. I have a working theory that he might be a model for J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smigel.
There are countless places in the Quatermain series where Hans’ alcoholism is explicitly attributed to his ancestry. In She and Allan, Hans is described as a “monkey” with “apish curiosity.” His ambitions are compared to those of a dog: he only craves to be near his master. The immortal and wise Ayesha observes that we can learn something of humanity’s simian ancestors by studying “the little yellow man.”
Interestingly, Ayesha (pictured above) sounds much like the scientific racists in Hottentot Venus. In that novel, the chief scientist of France gives a long speech about the “Great Chain of Being,” arguing that Sarah Baartman represents a sort of link between the higher apes (chimps) to the “lower races of man” (Blacks). The British were no better than the French or Dutch here: Like Sarah, Hans would have been a legal ward of the British governor of the Cape Colony. Khoikhoi were considered too unintelligent to take care of themselves.
I don’t mean to beat this to death and there are a lot of things to recommend Haggard’s work, but I think if one gets into it, one should probably learn about the peoples Haggard was writing about. Hottentot Venus is a captivating look into the cruelties of the 18th and 19th centuries and the many hardships people faced back then. It’s a nice antidote to Haggard’s portrayal of Hans. Where we experience Hans through the lens of Allan Quatermain and others reacting to him, Sarah is the point of view character in Hottentot Venus. Rather than a Westerner’s speculations about the animal nature of Khoikhoi people, the book presents Sarah’s Khoikhoi observations about Western society.
Learning Sarah’s story has made me more interested in what Hans’ story might have been. Did he grow up in service to Dutch people or was he born in a traditional Khoikhoi band? Why is he a fearful and superstitious alcoholic? Why is he so devoted to Allan’s father and Allan in turn? These are interesting questions once you start to get some context.
*Khoikhoi are only one KhoiSan people. In contrast to the Khoikhoi, San peoples were historically pure hunter-gatherers. Today, contemporary Khoikhoi people who remain in traditional communities tend to be hunter-gatherers as there haven’t been available grazing lands for a long time.
**I almost confused Hans with Allan’s other Khoikhoi servant named Ventvögel who froze to death in King Solomon’s Mines. Don’t make my mistake.