Saartjie/Sara/Sarah Baartman was a Hottentot (now known as “Khoikhoi” as the term “Hottentot” is currently viewed as pejorative) woman born in the Gamtoos River area in the Eastern Cape some time before 1790. Her parents were killed in a commando raid and she was apparently a slave(*) owned by a Dutch farmer, Peter Cezer, near Cape Town in the Western Cape.
Sarah Baartman had very prominent buttocks, and elongated labia and she was persuaded by Alexander Dunlop, a military surgeon who supplied showmen in Britain with animal specimens to go with him to London in 1810 where she was displayed under the name “The Hottentot Venus”. She rapidly became a celebrity and people flocked to exhibitions where she was paraded for long hours each day. There are also reports indicating that men were permitted to touch her as part of the display.
(*)I am not sure about this ‘slave’ information because I have, up to now, been under the impression that none of the local people were ever actually enslaved (hideously abused – as this story will show – is another story), slaves having been imported from other countries. Also, Britain had recently enacted the Slave Trade Act in 1807, making it illegal to trade in slaves, although slavery itself was still legal. There was actually a trial in England on 24 November 1810 at the Court of King’s Bench where the Attorney-General began the attempt to show Baartman had been brought to Britain by persons who referred to her as if she were property. At this hearing the Secretary of the African Association described the degrading conditions under which she was exhibited and also gave evidence of coercion. However Baartman was questioned before an attorney in Dutch, in which she was fluent, via interpreters. She stated that she was not under restraint, did not wish to return to her family and understood perfectly that she was guaranteed half of the profits. The case was therefore dismissed. However, it would seem that she was later sold to a French exhibitor, S Reaux, where she was visited by French naturalists, some of whom made scientific paintings of her, naked except for a “small apron-like garment which concealed her genitalia”. This she refused to remove this even when offered money by one of the attending scientists. She spoke her native tongue, fluent Dutch, passable English and had a smattering of French and was described as “charming” and “pretty”. She was musical and danced well.
Baartman died on 29 December 1815 of an undetermined inflammatory ailment, and speculation has it that it was smallpox, or syphilis or pneumonia.
Her remains, including her genitals, were placed on display until 1974 when they were removed from public view and stored out of sight. Despite sporadic calls over the years for her remains to be repatriated, it was only some time after President Nelson Mandela formally requested these remains that France finally returned them on 6 May 2002. They were buried on a hill with a view over the Gamtoos River.
Saartjie Baartman is a woman representative of many aspects of South Africa’s unattractive racist and sexist history and it is right that her sad and unheroic role in history has been acknowledged. One of South Africa’s environmental protection vessels, the Sarah Baartman, was named after her, as has The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, a refuge for survivors of domestic violence in Cape Town.
I have a rule that I don’t make postings to this blog without illustrations. Here I was tempted to break this rule. Sarah Baartman has been sufficiently exploited without me adding to it. However, there are so many pictures readily available on the internet that I have decided that this token tribute to Sarah Baartman would be meaningless. In addition, there is some doubt as to the exact nature of her exploitation, some of which may have been consensual much like porn stars of today. In the end my empathy is for a woman who lived away from her people, paraded for the sexual and scientific titillation of foreigners and who died far away from home and denied dignity even in death.
This article is part of my Women’s month series of articles about South African women of note.