• Name: Sarah Baartman
  • Ethnicity: Black
  • Place of Birth: Cape Colony, South Africa
  • Aged: 26 years

Sarah Baartman, also known as “Saartjie” Bartman, being a diminutive form of Sarah in Dutch, was a woman that stemmed from the Khoikhoi tribe in South Africa, commonly referred to as “Hottentot Venus.” “Hottentot” was a name for the Khoi people, and “Venus,” a name for the Roman goddess of love and fertility.

Saartjie suffered from a medical condition known as “Steatopygia,” hence her pronounced outer buttocks. The unusual pronounced outer buttocks subjected her to discrimination and objectification of some part of the society that she does not belong to the female gender and black race.

Who was Sarah Baartman?

She was born in 1789 in the Camdeboo valley in the eastern parts of the Cape Colony,

belonging to a cattle rearing group in South Africa. Her mother died when she was two years of

age, and her father died while she was barely a teenager. 

To survive as an orphan, Saartjie started working as domestic labor. In 1810, she was relieved when Hendrik Cesars, her employer, and William Dubllop, a medical doctor, took her to England for steatopygia treatments. Although being illiterate, she signed a contract with them to participate in shows (According to court documents); however, these men sought to show her for money as it was fashionable and desirable to have large buttocks.

Sarah Baartman in England

After she arrived in England, Saartjie was exhibited in London’s Piccadilly Circus in England, a primordial and rare phenomenon in human existence, showing her body to those who could pay.

She would wear tight and skin-colored clothing with beads and feathers as adornments and would smoke a pipe on stage. Wealthy customers would pay for private demonstrations while others would pay a fee to touch her.

In 1807, slavery was abolished in England, but slavery was not obliterated. During the time

of her exhibitions, British abolitionists who were aggressively campaigning against slavery saw

her under her state of duress and inhumane treatments and sought to redress Saartjie’s unfair

subjugation in the court of law.

Her employers were prosecuted by the law but were not convicted as they presented the contract she had allegedly signed and agreed to and also Sarah Bartman herself, testifying in favor of her employers in court saying she was a free woman, coming to England on her own will and was not subjected to any inhumane treatment whatsoever.

The court judgment, however, went in favor of her employers. After their victory, Hendrick Cesars

left the shows while Dunlop continued. She continued making shows in London, gaining fame

and popularity as she traveled.

However, after a while, Sarah’s show gradually lost clout and novelty amongst the capital; she began touring around England and Ireland.

Sarah Baartman in France

Henry Taylor took Sarah Bartman to France in 1814, then sold her off to an

animal trainer Sean Reaux, who exhibited her under more pressure in France.

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He impregnated her, and she birthed a child that later died due to some unknown causes.

Her objectification and degradation intensified In Paris as she continued her exhibitions, which became more and more entangled with scientific racism.

In Paris, they were particularly curious about why she had an elongated labia, purportedly observed in her tribe. She was a scientific research subject with several paintings at the Jardin du Roi, where she was examined.

Under these conditions, she became a heavy drinker and smoker, miserable and

abjectly poor. At the time, some white Europeans opinionated that Africans were nothing but primal, inferior, and of lesser development relative to their race.

It was a common narrative to link animals to humans of African descent. George Cuvier, a French naturalist, claimed Saartjie was intelligent with a good memory for faces and also linguistically diverse but ironically, he also compared her physique to an orangutan.

Sarah’s Death

Sarah died at the age of 26 from an inflammatory disease speculated to have originated

from heavy alcohol consumption, syphilis, smallpox, or and pneumonia.

What Happened To Saartjie’s body?

Sadly, after her death, her freak shows did not stop. George Cuvier made a plaster cast of her body before he dissected it.

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After Cuvier’s dissection, he pickled her brain, genitalia, and buttocks and placed them in jars, and preserved her skeleton for display in the Musee de l’Homme museum in France as well as her

plaster cast to denote her primitiveness and equality to the intellectual capacity of apes.

This was to foster Cuvier’s theory of evolution. Her preserved parts were on public display until 1974 when her skeleton was removed and 1976 when the body cast was removed.

Upon South Africa’s first and free democratic election, President Nelson Mandela requested that

Sarah’s remains are returned to the country for proper burial. After heated debates and

arguments, France agrees to release the remains on March 6, 2002, to be repatriated to her

burial homeland.

She was properly buried 187 years after her death. The remains of Sarah

Baartman is buried in a modest grave in the tiny farming village of Hankey in the Eastern Cape.

Austere, brownstones mark the site, and a plaque somberly highlights her short life’s hardship and

exploitation. Her grave has been declared a South African National Heritage Site.

Categories: Biography

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