The tales of ‘Saartije’ Sara Baartman, the Hottentot Venus on “freak shows”

Sara Baartman was born in 1789 at the Gaamtos river in what is known as today as the Eastern Cape. She belonged to the cattle herding Gonaquasab group of the Khoikhoi.

She grew up on a colonial farm where her family most probably worked as servants. Her mother died when she was aged two and her father who was a cattle driver, died when she reached adolescence. Sara married a Khoikhoi man who was a drummer and together they had one child who died shortly after birth.

Due to colonial expansions, the Dutch came into conflicts with the Khoikhoi. People were gradually absorbed into the labor system working mostly as slaves. Sara’s fiancé was murdered by Dutch colonialists when she was 16 years. She was soon after sold into slavery to a trader known as Pieter Wilem Cezar, who took to Cape Town to serve as domestic servant to his brother. It was during this time she was given the name ‘Saartije’, a Dutch diminutive term for Sara.

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On October 1810, Sara ‘allegedly’ signed a contract which was of course dubious since Sara never knew how to write, with an English ship surgeon named Dunlop William who was a friend to Wilen Cezar and his brother Hendrik. The ‘contract’ was that she will go to England to work as domestic servant, and be exhibited as for entertainment purposes. She was to receive a ‘portion of earnings’ and be allowed to return to South Africa after five years.

Sara Baartman’s large buttocks and unusual colouring made her the object of fascination by the colonial Europeans who presumed that their race is superior to any other race. She was taken to London where she was displayed in a building in Piccadilly, a street that was full of various oddities like “ the ne plus ultra of hideousness” and “the greatest deformity in the world”. Englishmen and women paid to see Sara’s half naked body displayed in a cage that was about a metre and half high. She became an attraction to people from various parts of the Europe.

After four years in London, Sara was transported from England to France in September 1814, Hendrik Cezar sold her to Reaux upon arrival, Reaux was 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 was ordered to animals. At times Baartman was displayed almost completely naked.

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Her constant display attracted the attention of George Cuvier, a naturalist. Reaux agreed to the request of Cuvier that Sara to be studied as a science specimen. As from March 1815 Sara was studied by French anatomists, zoologists and physiologists. Cuvier concluded that she had a link between animals and humans. Thus, Sara was used to help the emphasise the stereotype that Africans were oversexed and a lesser race.

Sara Baartman died in 1816 at the age of 26. It is unclear whether she died of alcoholism, smallpox or pneumonia. Cuvier obtained her remains from local police and dissected her body. He made plaster cast of her body , pickled her brain and genitals and placed them into jars which were placed on displays at the Musée de l’Homme until 1974.

Sara Baartman’s remains was transported back to South Africa on sixth of March 2002. On 9 August 2002, Women’s Day, a public holiday in South Africa, Sara was buried at Hankey in the Eastern Cape province.

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