Biography of Sara Baartman
A Khoikhoi woman who originated from South Africa; the so-called ‘Hottentot Venus’ who came to Europe in 1810 and exhibited in Britain and France where she died of smallpox late 1815.
A cast was made of her body after her demise and her skeleton and organs were preserved by the anatomist Georges Cuvier; her remains were brought back to South Africa in 2002. She is portrayed in several prints held by the Museum, notably satires which can be traced in George’s ‘Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires…’ (BMSat index, s.v. Sartje) and in De Vinck.
Her life has been discussed extensively in literature relating to colonialism, racism and sexism. Today, I’ll be telling you all you need to know about Sara Baartman.
Profile Summary of Sara Saartjie Baartman
|Full Name||Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman|
|Date ot birth||1789|
|Place of birth||Gamtoos River, Eastern Cape,South Africa|
|Date of death||29-December-1815 (aged 25–26)|
|Place of death||Paris|
|Resting place||Vergaderingskop, Hankey, Eastern Cape, South Africa|
|Synopsis||A Khoikhoi woman|
|Nicknake||Hottentot Venus, Saartjie Baartman|
Who is Sara Baartman?
Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman was born in 1789 at the then Gamtoos river which is now called the Eastern Cape. She was a part of the cattle-herding Gonaquasub group of the Khoikhoi. Little Sara grew up on a colonial farm where her family worked as servants. Her mom died when she was two(2) years and her father, who was a cattle driver, died when she approached teenagehood.
When was Sara Baartman’s born?
Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman was born in 1789. However, some sources argue over the exact date of Baartman’s birth but most sources mention the year as 1789.
Was Sara Baartman Married?
Sara also got married to a man of her clan, a Khoikhoi man who was a drummer and they had one child together. Sadly, their child died shortly after birth.
As a result of to colonial increase, the Dutch came into conflict with the Khoikhoi and as a result, people were gradually taken into the labour system.
The Life and Times of Sara Baartman
When she was sixteen(16) years old, Sara’s husband was murdered by Dutch colonists. Later on, she was sold into slavery to a trader called Pieter Willem Cezar, who took her to Cape Town where she became a domestic servant to his brother.
It was at that time that she was given a new name ‘Saartjie’, a Dutch diminutive for Sara. On 29 October 1810, Sara entered into a ‘signed’ contract with an English ship surgeon named William Dunlop who was also a friend of Cezar and his brother Hendrik. Apparently, the terms of her ‘contract’ were that she would travel with Hendrik Cezar and Dunlop to England and Ireland to work as a domestic servant, and be used for entertainment purposes.
The terms of the agreement permitted her to receive a ‘portion of earnings’ from her exhibitions and be allowed to return to South Africa after five years. Two things made her ‘signing’ appear dubious. The first is that she was an illiterate who came from a cultural tradition that did not write or keep records. Secondly, the Cezar families experienced financial woes and it is suspected that they used Sara to earn money.
Sara Baartman Hip a symbol of exploitation
Sara Baartman’s large buttocks (hips) and peculiar body colouring made her the object of fascination by the colonial Europeans who presumed that they were racially superior. Dunlop wanted Sara to move to London and become an element for display. She was later taken to London where she was showcased 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”.
Whitemen 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 for people from various parts of Europe. During her stay with Dunlop and Hendrik Cezar, the agitation against slavery in Britain was in full momentum and as a result, the ill treatment of Baartman was questioned.
Her “masters” were brought to court but faced no serious consequences. They brought a document that had allegedly been signed by ‘ignorant’ Sara and her own testimony which claimed that she was not being ill-treated. However, her ‘contract’ with her employers was amended and she became entitled to ‘better treatment’, increase revenue share and warm clothes.
After spending four years in London, in September 1814, she was transported from England to France by Hendrix Cezar. Upon arrival, he sold her out to Reaux, a trader of animals. He displayed her body within Paris and earned financial benefits. He started showcasing her in a cage together with a baby rhinoceros. Her “trainer” would command her to sit or stand in a similar way that circus animals are ordered. At times Baartman was displayed almost completely naked, putting on only a little piece of cloth to cover her private body region. She was nicknamed “Hottentot Venus”.
Sara Baartman body experiment
Her frequent display attracted the attention of George Cuvier, a naturalist. He requested Reaux to allow Sara to be studied as a science specimen and of course her gave his consent. Begining from March 1815, Sara was studied by French anatomists, zoologists and physiologists.
Cuvier came to the conclusion that she was a link between animals and humans. Thus, Sara was used to help emphasise the stereotype that Africans were oversexed and a lesser race.
Sara Baartman Death
Sara Baartman died in 1816 at the age of 26. It is not known 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 de l’Homme (Museum of Man) until 1974.
Sara Baartman return to SA
The story of Sara Baartman reappeared in 1981 when Stephen Jay Gould, a palaeontologist wrote about her story in his book The Mismeasure of Man where he criticised racial science. After the African National Congress (ANC)’s victory in the South African elections, Lt. President Nelson Mandela requested that the French government return the remains of Sara Baartman so that she could be properly laid to rest.
Sarah Baartman burial
This process took eight years, because the French Government had to draft a carefully worded bill that would not allow other countries to claim treasures taken by the French. Finally on the sixth of March 2002, Sara Baartman was brought back home to South Africa where she was buried. On 9 August 2002, Women’s Day, a public holiday in South Africa, Sara was buried at Hankey in the Eastern Cape Province.
What does her life mean?
Her life was the height of internalized racism, sexism and fetishization of the black woman’s body by white-folk.