A Nineteenth Century Investigation of Race and Sex

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By | From the Collections

The story of Saartjie (Sara) Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’ is relatively well-known and has been extensively discussed by scholars for what the discussion and exhibition in Europe of this Khoisan woman from southern Africa (whose original name is not even known) tells us about racial and gender attitudes of the early nineteenth century. This poster advertising her appearance in Chester describes her as being ‘exhibited’ as a ‘natural curiosity’.

Poster advertising exhibition of the 'Hottentot Venus'

Poster advertising exhibition of the ‘Hottentot Venus’

‘Hottentots’, in particular the women, were considered of scientific interest because of what they allegedly revealed about racial and sexual difference. There was also a wider prurient fascination with them as exotic specimens displayed alongside other ‘freaks’ and ‘curiosities of nature’ as evidenced by material in the ephemera collections.

The Library recently acquired some manuscript material relating to investigations into the anatomy of Khoisan women in South Africa by a group of French explorers returning from the Baudin expedition to Australia during the years 1800-1804. This expedition was described in Voyage de découvertes aux terres australes, exécuté par ordre de Sa Majesté l’empereur et roi, sur les corvettes le Géographe, le Naturaliste, et la goëlette le Casuarina, pendant les années 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804 …. [Historique.] publié par decret impérial, sous le ministère de M. de Champagny et Rédigé … par M. F. Péron [et continué par M. Louis Freycinet]. It briefly mentions their visit to the Cape but does not describe their ethnographic investigations there in any detail, indicating that it was proposed to publish these separately. However, François Auguste Péron  (1775-1810) died shortly afterwards at a relatively young age and this plan did not materialise.

There survives a transcription of two articles by Péron and his colleague Charles Alexandre Lesueur relating to these investigations –  ‘Expédition de Découvertes aux Terres Australes. Observations sur le Tablier des femmes Hottentotes… Par MM. F. Péron et C.A. Lesueur, Naturalistes de l’expédition de Découvertes. Lu à la séance particulière de la Classe des Sciences Phisiques et Mathématiques de l’Institut le 1er. Pluviose an 13 (21 Janvier 1805)’  and ‘Réponse de Mr. Péron aux observations critiques de Mr. Dumont sur le tablier des femmes Hotentotes’ –  by their colleague Freycinet, along with three 3 hand-coloured engraved illustrative plates prepared for publication but never published. These items are now available as MS.8839.

Their account describes Reinier de Klerk Dibbetz, a Dutch doctor, revolutionary and poet, resident at the Cape and a pioneer of Jenner’s smallpox vaccine, whose small hospital was visited by the expedition. The women whom they investigated, however, remain nameless, indeed faceless, specimens whose genital organs were the feature of most interest to these European savants, who were looking for the ‘Tablier des femmes Hottentotes’ or ‘Hottentot Apron’, a characteristic enlargement of the inner labia, considered a marker of the primitive ‘Other’ and at that period the subject of considerable scientific debate.

Further material illustrating these attitudes can be found in MS.4679, which also deals with observations of ‘Hottentots’ at a similar period, and material on Saartjie Baartman in RAMC/1139/LP/63/1-19 (see the player below); there is also relevant material in the Art Collection. There are some autograph letters of C-A Lesueur in MS.7152.

Author: Dr Lesley Hall is a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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