Sara ‘Saartje’ Baartman was born around 1796 (accounts vary as to her date of birth) at the Gamtoos River in what is now known as the Eastern Cape, South Africa. She belonged to the cattle-herding Gonaquasub group of the Khoikhoi. Sara 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.
Due to colonial expansion, the Dutch came into conflict with the Khoikhoi. As a result people were gradually absorbed into the labour system. When she was sixteen years old Sara’s fiancé was murdered by Dutch colonists. Soon after, she was sold into slavery to a trader named Pieter Willem Cezar, who took her to Cape Town where she became a domestic servant to his brother. It was during this time that she was given the name ‘Saartjie’, a Dutch diminutive for Sara.
Sarah journeys to Europe
On 29 October 1810, Sara allegedly ‘signed’ a 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 exhibited for entertainment purposes. She was to receive a ‘portion of earnings’ from her exhibitions and be allowed to return to South Africa after five years. Two reasons make her ‘signing’ appear dubious. The first is that she was illiterate and 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.
It is written that Sara 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 Baartman’s buttocks and unusual colouring made her the object of fascination by the colonial Europeans who presumed that they were racially superior. In 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 for people from various parts of Europe. Her breasts, buttocks and labia were the focus of those who came to se her and they were allowed to pay an additional fee to touch and prod her on these intimate areas of her body. The image and idea of “The Hottentot Venus” as she was also known, swept through British popular culture. A court battle waged by abolitionists to free her from her exhibitors largely failed. 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.
In September 1814 she was taken to France, and became the object of scientific and medical research that formed the bedrock of European ideas about black female sexuality. Perceptions of Black women as being sexual savages (as well as racially inferior) were formulated and are still held today.
On arrival in France, 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.
Her constant display attracted the attention of French scientific icon, George Cuvier, a naturalist. He asked Reaux if he would allow Sara to be studied as a science specimen to which Reaux agreed. As from March 1815 Sara was studied by French anatomists, zoologists and physiologists. Cuvier concluded that she was a link between animals and humans. It is written in some accounts that Cuvier raped Sara for the purposes of impregnating her. She did become pregnant and gave birth but the child lived for less than 5 years.
Thus, Sara was used to help emphasise the stereotype that Africans were oversexed and a lesser race.
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 saw her as little more than an ape. 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. The story of Sara Baartman resurfaced in 1981 when Stephen Jay Gould, a palaeontologist wrote about her story in his book The Mismeasure of Man where he criticised racial science.
Sarah’s return to South Africa
Following the African National Congress (ANC)’s victory in the South African elections, President Nelson Mandela requested that the French government return the remains of Sara Baartman so that she could be laid to rest. The process took eight years, as the French had to draft a carefully worded bill that would not allow other countries to claim treasures taken by the French. Finally on 6 March 2002, Sara Baartman was brought back home to South Africa.
Sara’s repatriation involved years of lobbying by people in South Africa including Professor Phillip Tobias and many activists, a connection between a French parliamentary assistant and a South African poet Diana Ferrus, and French senator Nicolas About who, when told that only a law could force the country to give up Baartman, introduced one.
Speaking at her funeral on 9 August 2002, South African president Thabo Mbeki said,
Baartman’s story “is the story of the loss of our ancient freedom… It is the story of our reduction to the status of objects that could be owned, used and disposed of by others.”
However, after returning Sara to South Africa, questions and uncertainties remained. For how does an exploited spirit return home, when home, and the accompanying culture, is gone? And who could speak for her now, almost two hundred years after she left? What are the meanings of her legacy today? Even, what to call her, Sara, Sarah, or Saartjie – what would she have called herself? The colonial legacy may be receding, but it is still a long way from vanishing.
Sources: harvard.edu, sahistory.org, icarusfilms.co.uk, journals.sagepub.com, britishmuseum.org