By Joshua Robinson –
Scheduled to be published on 10th November 2023, ‘Hottentot Venus – The Story of Saartjie Baartman’ by Monica Clarke is destined to bring much-needed attention to a woman who is a household name in her native South Africa, with a local municipality, The Saartjie Baartman Municipality, named in her honour.
Giving her ancestor her own voice in a biography that is both harrowing and compelling in equal measure, Monica Clarke lays bare the realities, abuse, and dehumanisation of a young woman who thought she was heading to Europe to become a nursery maid. Instead, she found herself exhibited in a cage at ‘freak shows’ so voyeurs could pay to stare at her and poke her.
Based on fact and extensive research, Monica Clarke occasionally fills in gaps when required to place Saartjie’s experiences within her own culture, which is almost completely left out of historical records.
Hottentot Venus also brings to the fore hugely significant issues (including colonisation and female genitalia mutilation), and despite recounting the life story of a woman who lived over 200 years ago, it reflects contemporary issues of human traffickers and bonded labour still very much in the present.
With the recent Black Venus exhibition at London’s Somerset House further highlighting the historical objectification of Saartjie Baartman and other black women, the publication of Monica Clarke’s book captures the cultural zeitgeist, and makes for an unique read.
Synopsis of the Book:
Learn about the life of Saartjie Baartman, an ordinary and curious 18-year-old whose dreams led her from the familiar shores of Cape Town to the distant lands of England and Paris. Little did she know that her voyage would take a tragic turn, transforming her life into a harrowing tale of exploitation and dehumanisation.
In this biography, Saartjie’s true story is finally given a voice, allowing her to recount her experiences first hand. From the initial promise of work as a nursery maid to the shocking reality of being displayed as an object of desire in London and Paris, her journey is one of heartbreak, resilience and survival.
Monica Clarke stated that: “This book tells the story of one of my Khoikhoen ancestors, whose story has for too long been distorted by a corrupt and partial historical record that abuses her memory, just as her captors abused her in her tragically short life.”
“The book shows that Saartjie’s choices were severely limited by immense political and social changes over her short life, yet she took responsibility for her own actions. Young and old will gain strength from this resilience, and might do things differently where she went wrong, so as to allow themselves to turn their own pain into power.”
“My hope is my book will introduce young people to the concepts of grooming for favours, and of fraud and exploitation, which are often excused by allegations of collusion.”
Monica added: “Genital mutilation is also addressed, for the size of Saartjie’s genitalia was at the bottom of the weird exhibition of her body. It is hoped that after young people have considered her life, they will not find funny the myths about the sexual prowess of black persons, which are still joked about today. The book also touches on what it was like to be a young girl when menstruation starts, and the experiences of childbirth at the time.”
As readers delve into Saartjie’s own words, they will bear witness to the fear and anguish of a displaced soul in foreign lands. Her poignant narrative sheds light on the struggles faced by countless individuals torn from their homelands, forced to navigate the trials of being foreign nationals in strange and unwelcoming territories.
Monica said: “Through other insights into the lives of the South African indigenous peoples, those interested in the proper recording of history will learn that Saartjie’s story is also the story of all colonised aboriginal people the world over: a constant stream of human rights abuses.”
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Supported by research and accurate references, this book also draws parallels to the present day, where the corrosion of human rights continues to fuel the alarming rise of human trafficking and bonded labour.
Saartjie’s story serves as a timeless reminder of the enduring fight for justice and equality, resonating even more powerfully in a world that grapples with these same issues two centuries later.
Monica said: “Saartjie was bullied and coerced: She was pinched and poked. She was trafficked and put into bonded labour.”
“In the book she vocalises for us the experiences of displaced peoples and refugees all over the world, when she describes what it is like to be a foreign national in a strange land.”
Monica added: “We know that human trafficking and bonded labour are now on a frightening increase more than 200 years after her death.”
“I ask those readers who are able to, to write their stories, so as to bring light into the increasing darkness of human suffering.”
“This Saartjie would have done, but could not do, because she was illiterate.”
Hottentot Venus is a tribute to a remarkable woman who suffered the indignities of exploitation, but whose legacy fuels the ongoing struggle for dignity and human rights. Her voice, once silenced, now echoes through the pages of this important book, urging the confrontation of the past, understand the present, and create a more compassionate future.
About Monica Clarke:
Born in South Africa, under the Apartheid regime as a member of the indigenous Khoikhoen people, Monica Clarke first qualified as a nurse and a midwife before retraining as a lawyer, specialising in the defence of people prosecuted under South Africa’s apartheid laws.
Monica said: “My hope is that by gaining an alternative insight into South African aboriginal, unrecorded, history, that the book might form the basis for others to re-research and re-write history as it was actually experienced by our antecedents. It has also been written to support the great effort by our KhoiKhoi/KhoiSan Chiefs and leaders in their efforts to keep our history alive, for our true culture and heritage has not formed part of history as recorded by the Europeans.”
Her 50-year career as a political activist and member of the African National Congress resulted in her being sought by the government security services. Monica had to leave her family and go into hiding in order to flee the regime’s para-military ‘death squads’.
In the 1990s, she was granted political asylum in the UK, where she worked as a commercial lawyer until her psychotherapist husband suffered a major stroke.
Monica gave up her career in order to care for him on a fulltime basis. This in turn led her to become a vocal and forceful advocate for the rights of carers and of patients themselves, as well as black and ethnic minorities in the UK.
At the beginning of the century, following her husband’s death, she was recruited as an Associate Director in the NHS Chief Medical Officer’s Team dedicated to improvements in the quality of care and in the full and active involvement of patients and carers as ‘partners in their own care’.
Following her retirement from the NHS, her ongoing concern for the plight of young people in South Africa led her, in 2013, to found the charity ‘I Protect Me’ (IPM) dedicated to empowering young people with the confidence and the personal skills to defend themselves and their peers from exploitation and abuse.
IPM, of which she remains the Honorary President, has grown into a Pan-African organisation that recruits and supports unemployed trainers to teach prevention of abuse as a life skill in schools, reaching thousands of young people to resist abuse and to change mindsets and cultural inertia to abuse.
Monica continues to be an energetic and persuasive advocate on behalf of the disadvantaged and the oppressed—whether of this or of earlier times.
Published on 10th November 2023 by Austin Macauley Publishers, Hottentot Venus is available in paperback (ISBN No: 9781035818037) and eBook format (ISBN No: 9781035818044) from: https://www.monicaclarke.website/writings/hottentot-venus-saartjie-baartman