(article by The GraeGram: A Lifestyle Magazine)
Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman was born in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in 1789 to a South African Khoisan family. Khoisans are one of the two major ethnic groups in that region. She was orphaned at a young age and enslaved by dutch farmers in the region of her birth. Like other Khoikhoi women, Saartjie had a well-endowed buttocks and an elongated labia. Because of those characteristics a brother of her slave owner became interested in the young female slave. By convincing her that she would become a wealthy woman, Hendrick Cezar persuaded the twenty-one (21) year old Saartjie to travel with him to England for exhibition. Unfortunately, Saartjie had no idea that she would be his exhibition.
In 1810 Saartjie Baartman sailed for London, England with her new owner Hendrick Cezar. He exhibited her as the sideshow attraction, Hottentot Venus. “Hottentot” because it was the European name for the Khoi people. “Venus” because Hendrick wanted to refer to the Roman Goddess of love. In Britain, Saartjie was forced to entertain people by exhibiting and shaking her bare buttocks and displaying her other un-European body features. A recent 2002 news story in the United Kingdom’s “The Guardian” described the British exhibitions this way…
“The first time Saartjie Baartman was dragged out to squat before the mob at 225 Picadilly, the show’s promoter billed her genitals as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey’s throat [the turkey waddle]. For several years, working class Londoners crowded in to shout vulgarities at the protruding buttocks and large vulva of the unfortunate woman made famous across Europe as the “Hottentot Venus”. The aristocracy was no less fascinated at what they saw as a sexual freak, but they had private showings.”
Her London exhibition after the passing of London’s 1807 Slave Trade Act created a scandal in Britain. An English Abolitionist Society petitioned for her release. But when Saartjie was questioned in court she contended that she freely participated in the exhibits and was guaranteed half the profits. Since eyewitness accounts of her exhibitions contradict her court testimony, the veracity of her statements has been brought into question.
Saartjie was then sold to a Frenchman who took her from London to France. It was here that she was exhibited for fifteen (15) months by an animal trainer named Regu. Her French exhibitions were more pressurized than anything she experienced in England. She was visited by French naturalists and objectified as the subject of several scientific paintings at the Jardin du Joi. Eventually the French tired of her and she was forced to support herself through prostitution. She didn’t last the ravages of a foreign culture and climate or the further abuse of her body. On December 29, 1815 Saartjie Baartman passed away at the age of twenty six (26) years old. Cause of death was given as ‘inflammatory and eruptive sickness, possibly syphilis’.
Her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were placed on display in Paris, France as recent as 1914 when they were removed from public view. When Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Hottentot Venus” was released in 1985, Saartjie Baartman’s life was brought to the world’s attention. A public outcry began for her remains to be returned to her homeland. In 1994 following the victory of the African National Congress in the South African elections, President Nelson Mandela formally requested the return of her remains. In 2002 France finally agreed and Saartjie Baartman’s remains were repatriated to her homeland. She is buried on a hill in the Gamtoos River Valley in the Eastern Cape, the place of her birth. She was laid to rest on Women’s Day, August 9, 2002. More than two-hundred (200) years after her birth. Today she is classified in history as the very first vixen.
Saartjie Baartman became an icon in South Africa as a representative of many aspects of the nation’s history. The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children opened in Capetown in 1999. This centre is a refuge for survivors of domestic violence. http://www.saartjiebaartmancentre.org.za is the centre’s website address for all who wish to view. South Africa’s very first offshore environmental protection vessel ‘the Sarah Baartman’ is also named after her. It was ordered in 2002 and launched on June 17, 2004 and commissioned on January 10, 2005.