When 20-year-old Sara Baartman got on a boat that was to take her from Cape Town to London in 1810, she could not have known that she would never see her home again. Nor, as she stood on the deck and saw her homeland disappear behind her could she have known that she would become the icon of racial inferiority and black female sexuality for the next 100 years.
Sara “Saartjie” Baartman was born to a Khoisan family in the vicinity of the Gamtoos River in what is now the Eastern Cape of South Africa. She was orphaned in a commando raid.
Sara was a slave of Dutch farmers near Cape Town when Hendrick Cezar, the brother of her slave owner and British ship’s doctor William Dunlop, suggested that she travel to England for exhibition, promising her that she would become wealthy. Lord Caledon, governor of the Cape, gave permission for the trip, but later regretted it after he fully learned its purpose. She left for London in 1810.
Sara Baartman had unusually large buttocks and genitals, and in the early 1800s Europeans were arrogantly obsessed with their own superiority, and with proving that others, particularly blacks, were inferior and oversexed.
Baartman’s physical characteristics, not unusual for Khoisan women, although her features were larger than normal, were “evidence” of this prejudice, and she was treated like a freak exhibit in London.
During her time with Dunlop and Hendrik Cezar, the campaign against slavery in Britain was in full swing and as a result, the treatment of Baartman was called into question. Her “employers” were brought to trial but faced no real consequences. They produced a document that had allegedly been signed by Sara Baartman and her own testimony which claimed that she was not being mistreated. Her ‘contract’ was, however, amended and she became entitled to ‘better conditions’, greater profit share and warm clothes.
After four years in London, in September 1814, she was taken to France, and upon arrival, Hendrik Cezar sold her to Reaux, a man who showcased animals. He exhibited her around Paris and reaped financial benefits from the public’s fascination with Sara’s body. He began exhibiting her in a cage alongside a baby rhinoceros. Her “trainer” would order her to sit or stand in a similar way that circus animals are ordered. At times Baartman was displayed almost completely naked, wearing little more than a tan loincloth, and she was only allowed that due to her insistence that she cover what was culturally sacred. She was nicknamed “Hottentot Venus”.
Sara Baartman died in 1816 at the age of 26. It is unknown whether she died from alcoholism, smallpox or pneumonia. Cuvier obtained her remains from local police and dissected her body. He made a plaster cast of her body, pickled her brain and genitals and placed them into jars which were placed on display at the Musée del’ Homme(Museum of Man) until 1974.
Sarah Baartman was finally laid to rest properly 187 years after she left Cape Town for London. Her remains were buried on Women’s Day, 9 August 2002, in the area of her birth, the Gamtoos River Valley in the Eastern Cape.