Sarah Baartman

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Sarah Baartman
La Belle Hottentot.jpg
La Belle Hottentot, a 19th century French print of Baartman
Near Gamtoos River, Eastern Cape, Dutch Empire
Died29 December 1815(1815-12-29)
Paris, France
Resting place
Vergaderingskop, Hankey, Eastern Cape, South Africa
33°50′14″S 24°53′05″E / 33.8372°S 24.8848°E / -33.8372; 24.8848Coordinates: 33°50′14″S 24°53′05″E / 33.8372°S 24.8848°E / -33.8372; 24.8848
Other namesHottentot Venus
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Sarah Baartman
La Belle Hottentot.jpg
La Belle Hottentot, a 19th century French print of Baartman
Near Gamtoos River, Eastern Cape, Dutch Empire
Died29 December 1815(1815-12-29)
Paris, France
Resting place
Vergaderingskop, Hankey, Eastern Cape, South Africa
33°50′14″S 24°53′05″E / 33.8372°S 24.8848°E / -33.8372; 24.8848Coordinates: 33°50′14″S 24°53′05″E / 33.8372°S 24.8848°E / -33.8372; 24.8848
Other namesHottentot Venus

Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman (before 1790 – 29 December 1815)[1] (also spelled Bartman, Bartmann, Baartmen) was the most famous of at least two[2] Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as freak show attractions in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus—"Hottentot" as the then-current name for the Khoi people, now considered an offensive term,[3] and "Venus" in reference to the Roman goddess of love.

Summary of Life[edit]

According to popular history, Baartman was born in 1789 in the Gamtoos Valley of South Africa. When she was barely in her 20s, she was sold to London by an enterprising Scottish doctor named Alexander Dunlop, accompanied by a showman named Hendrik Cesars. She spent four years in Britain being exhibited. Her treatment caught the attention of British abolitionists, who tried to rescue her, but she claimed that she had come to London on her own accord. In 1814, after Dunlop's death, she traveled to Paris. With two consecutive showmen, Henry Taylor and S. Reaux, she amused onlookers who frequented the Palais-Royal. She was subjected to examination by George Cuvier, a professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History. In post-Waterloo France, sideshows like the Hottentot Venus lost their appeal. Baartman lived on in poverty, and died in Paris of illness in December 1815. After her death, Cuvier dissected her body, then displayed her remains. For more than a century and a half, visitors to the "Museum of Man" in Paris could view her brain and skeleton until she was peacefully laid to rest.[4]

Southern Africa[edit]

Sarah Baartman was born to a Khoisan family in the vicinity of the Gamtoos River in what is now the Eastern Cape of South Africa.[3] She was orphaned in a commando raid.[5] Saartjie, pronounced "Sahr-kee", is the diminutive form of her name; in Afrikaans the use of the diminutive form commonly indicates familiarity, endearment or contempt. Her birth name is unknown.[6]

Baartman was a slave[3][7][8] of a Dutch farmer named Peter Cezar near Cape Town, which had recently come under British control. Alexander Dunlop, a military surgeon with a sideline in supplying showmen in Britain with animal specimens, suggested she travel to England for exhibition.[9] Lord Caledon, governor of the Cape, gave permission for the trip, but later regretted it after he fully learned the purpose of the trip.[10] She left for London in 1810.

Great Britain[edit]

A caricature of Baartman drawn in the early 19th century

Baartman was exhibited first in London, entertaining people because of her "exotic" origin[11] and by showing what were thought of as highly unusual bodily features. Peter Cezar was the one who brought her to London in 1810, where he put her on exhibition in the Egyptian Hall of Piccadilly Circus.[12] She had large buttocks (steatopygia) and also the elongated labia of some Khoisan women. To quote historian of science Stephen Jay Gould, "The labia minora, or inner lips, of the ordinary female genitalia are greatly enlarged in Khoi-San women, and may hang down three or four inches below the vulva when women stand, thus giving the impression of a separate and enveloping curtain of skin".[13] Baartman never allowed this trait to be exhibited while she was alive,[14] and an account of her appearance in London in 1810 makes it clear that she was wearing a garment, although a tight-fitting one.[15]

Her exhibition in London, scant years after the passing of the Slave Trade Act 1807, created a scandal. An abolitionist benevolent society called the African Association – the equivalent of a charity or pressure group – conducted a newspaper campaign for her release. The showman associated with her exhibition, Hendrick Cezar[16] in an answer protested that Baartman was entitled to earn her living by this means: "...has she not as good a right to exhibit herself as an Irish Giant or a Dwarf?".[17] In Cezar's defense, he also presented a contract written in Dutch, since that was the only language Baartman understood, in which she "agreed" to perform domestic duties for her master as well as be viewed in public in England and Ireland "just as she was." In return, she was promised twelve guineas a year.[18] The African Association took the matter to court and on 24 November 1810 at the Court of King's Bench the Attorney-General began the attempt 'to give her liberty to say whether she was exhibited by her own consent'. In support he produced two affidavits in court. The first, from a Mr Bullock[19] of Liverpool Museum, was intended to show Baartman had been brought to Britain by persons who referred to her as if she were property. The second, by the Secretary of the African Association, described the degrading conditions under which she was exhibited and also gave evidence of coercion.[15] Baartman was then questioned before an attorney in Dutch, in which she was fluent, via interpreters. She stated that she in fact was not under restraint, did not get sexually abused, and that she came to London on her own free will.[18] She did not wish to return to her family and understood perfectly that she was guaranteed half of the profits. The case was therefore dismissed. She was questioned for three hours without anyone connected with her exhibition being present; however the conditions under which she made these statements are suspect, because her declaration directly contradicts accounts of her exhibitions made by Zachary Macaulay of the African Institution and other eyewitnesses.[14] A written contract[20] was also produced by Dunlop, though this is considered by some modern commentators as a legal subterfuge.[17]

The publicity given by the court case increased Baartman's popularity as an exhibit.[17] She later toured other parts of Britain and visited Ireland.[17] On 1 December 1811 Baartman was christened at Manchester Cathedral.[21][22]


Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

Baartman was sold to a Frenchman, who took her to his country.[23] She was in France from around September 1814.[24] An animal trainer, S. Réaux, exhibited her under more pressured conditions for fifteen months. French naturalists, among them Georges Cuvier, head keeper of the menagerie at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, visited her. She was the subject of several scientific paintings at the Jardin du Roi, where she was examined in March 1815: as Saint-Hilaire [25] and Frédéric Cuvier, a younger brother of Georges, reported, "she was obliging enough to undress and to allow herself to be painted in the nude." This was not literally true: although by his standards she appeared to be naked, in accordance with her own cultural norms of modesty[26] throughout these sessions she wore a small apron-like garment which concealed her genitalia. She steadfastly refused to remove this even when offered money by one of the attending scientists.[17] It has been alleged that once her novelty had worn thin with Parisians, she began to drink heavily and support herself with prostitution.[3] Baartman however had refused payment to allow scientists to observe her genitals in spring 1815, suggesting she both had her own standards of modesty and was not destitute at that time: and as a French paper[27] carried the usual advertisements for her show only a week prior to her death, she may always have been able to support herself without recourse to prostitution.

Her body[edit]

Since her rise to prominence Baartman’s body has been used to set a borderline between the "abnormal" African woman and "normal" Caucasian woman. The fact that she had protruding buttocks and an extended labia minora made society view her as this “wild or savage female”. Her “abnormalities”, as Georges Cuvier mentions in the “Gender, Race and Nation” chapter of The Gender and Science Reader, made her resemble everything but a white woman. She had a peculiar jaw structure, a short chin, and a flat nose, which resembled that of a "Negro." She was then considered to be part of the "Negro race," which at the time was considered the lowest race of humans. She was sometimes likened to an orangutan instead. [18]


Racism in the nineteenth century greatly differed from racism practiced today. Derogatory terms such as Negro (Negre in French), Savage, Primitive, and Hottentot were used commonly by racists in the nineteenth century. In cartoons and drawings Baartman's features were often exaggerated to highlight her difference from the perceived "normal" Caucasian female. This social construction of visual imagery likely amplified and reinforced racist perspectives. All of what is known about Baartman has been researched and documented from a biased, dominant, white perspective. Little of this knowledge can be considered completely factual, most knowledge of Baartman is not extrapolated from diverse sources of documentation. An example of racism follows. Since Baartman was not considered a human she was subject to perform not in the regular European-style clothes she would have worn in Cape Town, but in costume. "People came to see her because they saw her not as a person but as a pure example of this one part of the natural world," Crais says.[28] In Paris, Baartman's promoters didn't need to concern themselves with slavery charges. "By the time she got to Paris," Crais says, "her existence was really quite miserable and extraordinarily poor. Sara was literally treated like an animal. There is some evidence to suggest that at one point a collar was placed around her neck." Upon death Baartman's body was sent to George Cuvier's laboratory at the Museum of Natural History for examination. Cuvier wanted to examine her genitals to test his theory that the more "primitive" the mammal, the more pronounced would be the sexual organs and sexual drive. Baartman refused to be an experiment while she was alive but Cuvier got his way soon enough. With permission from police, Cuvier, who had amassed the world's largest collection of human and animal specimens, conducted an autopsy on Baartman's dead body. First he made a cast of her body, then he preserved her brain and genitals.[29] Cuvier concluded that "the Hottentots" were closer to great apes than humans. The rest of Baartman's flesh was boiled down to bones for Cuvier's collection and displayed for years afterward. Baartman's body did not receive a proper burial until much later. Crais says. "Today she is behind bars even in her grave, and no one goes to visit."[30]


During 1814-1870 there were at least seven scientific descriptions of the bodies of women of color done in comparative anatomy. Cuvier's dissection of Baartman helped shape European science. Scientific publications at that time revealed insecurity regarding race and gender by fellow individual researchers and the European culture as a whole. Using science the French elite attempted to lay their own fears to rest at the expense of many unfortunate others. Baartman along with several other African women who were dissected were referred to as Hottentots or sometimes Bushwomen. From the very beginning of the scientific revolution, scientists viewed the Earth or nature as female, a territory to be explored, exploited, and controlled.[31] By giving the foreign land a female gender this allowed the rape and exploitation of this land to be seen as natural. Therefore foreign or African women were allowed to be exploited for this was natural. The savage women was very distinct from the civilized female of Europe. The nineteenth century scientist who explored the body along with the earth was fascinated by the Hottentot Venus.[32] Two centuries ago people in London were able to pay two shillings apeice to gaze upon her body in wonder. Baartman was considered a freak of nature. For extra pay you could even poke her with a stick or your own finger says [33] Crais, professor of history at Emory University. Baartman's story was never completely told instead her silent displays including face paint, tight body stockings, and animal skins did all the talking contributing to myths about those who were from Africa being considered primitive or beneath and closer to nature than humans. While Baartman lived in Europe she was constantly made into political cartoons, drawings, gazed upon in disbelief, studied, and upon death dissected.

Death and legacy[edit]

She died on 29 December 1815 of an undetermined[34] inflammatory ailment, possibly smallpox,[35][36] while other sources suggest she contracted syphilis,[3] or pneumonia. An autopsy was conducted, and published by French anatomist Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville in 1816 and republished by French naturalist Georges Cuvier in the Memoires du Museum d'Histoire Naturelle in 1817. Cuvier, who had met Baartman, notes in his monograph that its subject was an intelligent woman with an excellent memory, particularly for faces. In addition to her native tongue she spoke fluent Dutch, passable English and a smattering of French. He describes her shoulders and back as "graceful", arms "slender", hands and feet as "charming" and "pretty". He adds she was adept at playing the jew's harp[37] could dance according to the traditions of her country and had a lively personality. Despite this he interpreted her remains, in accordance with his theories on racial evolution, as evidencing ape-like traits. He thought her small ears were similar to those of an orangutan and also compared her vivacity, when alive, to the quickness of a monkey.[17] Her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were placed on display in Paris' Musée de l'Homme[38] until 1974, when they were removed from public view and stored out of sight; a cast was still shown[39] for the following two years.

Last resting place of Saartjie Baartman, on a hill overlooking Hankey in the Gamtoos River Valley, Eastern Cape, South Africa

There were sporadic calls for the return of her remains, beginning in the 1940s. A poem written in 1978 by Diana Ferrus, herself of Khoisan descent, entitled "I've come to take you home", played a pivotal role in spurring the movement to bring Baartman's remains back to her birth soil.[3] The case gained world-wide prominence only after Stephen Jay Gould wrote The Hottentot Venus in the 1980s. After the victory of the African National Congress in the South African general election, 1994, President Nelson Mandela formally requested that France return the remains. After much legal wrangling and debates in the French National Assembly, France acceded to the request on 6 March 2002. Her remains were repatriated to her homeland, the Gamtoos Valley, on 6 May 2002[23] and they were buried on 9 August 2002 on Vergaderingskop, a hill in the town of Hankey over 200 years after her birth.[40]

Baartman became an icon in South Africa as representative of many aspects of the nation's history. The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children,[41] a refuge for survivors of domestic violence, opened in Cape Town in 1999. South Africa's first offshore environmental protection vessel, the Sarah Baartman, is also named after her.[42] Today, activists and academics claim Baartman as a symbol of Western exploitation and racism.

Display of remains[edit]

Baartman’s skeleton and body cast were displayed in Muséum d'histoire naturelle d’Angers, where she entertained visitors until her skull was stolen in 1827 and subsequently returned a few months later. The restored skeleton and skull continued to arouse the interest of visitors until the remains were moved to the Musee de l’ Homme, when it was founded, in 1937 and continued up until the late 1970s. Her body cast and skeleton stood side by side and faced away from the viewer which emphasized her steatopygia (accumulation of fat on the buttocks) while reinforcing that aspect as the primary interest of her body. The Baartman exhibit proved popular until it elicited complaints from feminists who believed the exhibit was a degrading representation of women. The skeleton was removed in 1974 and the body cast in 1976.[43]

Cultural references[edit]

Signboard at the grave, including the poem by Diana Ferrus

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Clifton C. Crais, Pamela Scully (2009). Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: a ghost story and a biography. Princeton University Press. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-691-13580-9. 
  2. ^ Another "Hottentot Venus" featured at a fête given in 1829 for the Duchess of Berry :Poster
  3. ^ a b c d e f Davie, Lucille (14 May 2012). "Sarah Baartman, at rest at last". Retrieved 2012-08-06. 
  4. ^ Qureshi, Sadiah (June 2004). "Displaying Sara Baartman, the 'Venus Hottentot'". History of Science 42. 
  5. ^ In her testimony to the Court of King's Bench via a Dutch interpreter Baartman said: 'Her father was a drover of cattle, and in going up the country was killed by the Bushmen.' The Times (London, England), 29 November 1810, p. 3: Law Report. Court of King's Bench.
  6. ^ Qureshi, Sadiah, 'Displaying Sara Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’' History of Science, Volume 42, Part 2, Number 136, June 2004, p.233-257: "The woman ... is now called Sara Baartman. Unfortunately, no record of her original name exists and she is better known by her epithet, the ‘Hottentot Venus’, to her contemporaries, present-day historians, and political activists."
  7. ^ Meltzer, Marisa (2007-01-09). "Venus abused | Salon Books". Retrieved 2013-10-18. 
  8. ^ "Sara's Story a symbol of subjugation". ChickenBones: A Journal. 2002-02-27. Retrieved 2013-10-18. 
  9. ^ According to a law report of 26 November 1810, an affidavit supplied to the Court of King’s Bench from a “Mr. Bullock of Liverpool Museum” stated: “...some months since a Mr. Alexander Dunlop, who, he believed, was a surgeon in the army, came to him sell the skin of a Camelopard, which he had brought from the Cape of Good Hope...Some time after, Mr. Dunlop again called on Mr. Bullock, and told him, that he had then on her way from the Cape, a female Hottentot, of very singular appearance; that she would make the fortune of any person who shewed her in London, and that he (Dunlop) was under an engagement to send her back in two years...” "Law Report." Times [London, England] 26 Nov. 1810: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 7 Aug. 2012.
  10. ^ The Times (London, England), 29 November 1810, p. 3: Law Report. Court of King's Bench. The Attorney-General commented 'As to Lord Caledon’s permission, it would have been wrong in his lordship to have given it. But it should be known, that ... no contract among them' (the Khoisan) 'was valid unless it was made before a Magistrate. This contract between the Hottentot and Cezar was made as usual; but when Lord Caledon discovered for what purpose, he was much displeased, and would have stopped the parties if they had then been in his power.’
  11. ^ A handwritten note made on an exhibition flyer by someone who saw Baartman in London in January 1811 indicates curiosity about her origins:“Sartjee is 22 Years old is 4 feet 10 Ins high, and has (for an Hoteentot) a good capacity. She lived in the occupation of a Cook at the Cape of Good Hope. Her Country is situated not less than 600 Miles from the Cape the Inhabitants of which are rich in Cattle and sell them by barter for a mere trifle, A Bottle of Brandy, or small roll of Tobacco will purchase several Sheep – Their principal trade is in Cattle Skins or Tallow. - Beyond this Nation is an other, of small stature, very subtle & fierce; the Dutch could not bring them under subjection, and shot them whenever they found them. 9th Jany. 1811. [H.C.?]” Document in the collection of the New York Public Library
  12. ^ The Gender and Science Reader ed. Muriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch. New York, Routledge, 2001.
  13. ^ Gould, 1985
  14. ^ a b (Strother 1999)
  15. ^ a b The Times, 26 November 1810, p. 3: "...she is dressed in a colour as nearly resembling her skin as possible. The dress is contrived to exhibit the entire frame of her body, and the spectators are even invited to examine the peculiarities of her form."
  16. ^ "Nothing more is known about Cezar. Percival Kirby, op. cit. (ref. 5), suggests he may have been Peter Cezar’s brother, and possibly the keeper to whom contemporary accounts of Baartman’s show refer (since the name is Dutch and the keeper spoke to Sara in Dutch)." Qureshi, Sadiah, 'Displaying Sara Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’' History of Science, Volume 42, Part 2, Number 136, June 2004, p.233-257
  17. ^ a b c d e f Sadiah Qureshi, Displaying Sara Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’ History of Science, Volume 42, Part 2, Number 136, June 2004, p.233-257
  18. ^ a b c The Gender and Science Reader ed. Muriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch. New York, Routledge, 2001.
  19. ^ William Bullock, b. early 1780s, d. 1849, English naturalist and antiquary.
  20. ^ "Dunlop produced a contract signed by himself and Sara dated 29 October 1810, which was to run from the preceding March for five years. This stated that she was his domestic servant and would allow herself to be exhibited in public in return for 12 guineas a year." Karen Harvey, ‘Baartman, Sara (1777x88–1815/16)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  21. ^ The Times, Thursday 12 December 1811, p.3:'The African fair one who has so greatly attracted the notice of the stated to have been baptized on Sunday week last, in the Collegiate church at Manchester, by the name of Sarah Bartmann.'
  22. ^ England Births and Christenings 1538-1975, Sarah Bartmann
  23. ^ a b "'Hottentot Venus' goes home". BBC. 29 April 2002. Retrieved 13 October 2008. 
  24. ^ Karen Harvey, ‘Baartman, Sara (1777x88–1815/16)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  25. ^ possibly Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire
  26. ^ “It is but justice to the modesty of the Hottentots to say that I have constantly found as many difficulties in the part of the women to submit to the exposure parts which a closer inspection required, as in all probability would have occurred in persuading an equal number of females of any other description to undergo examination.” William Somerville, a British surgeon stationed at the Cape between 1799 and 1802, describing his difficulty in gathering information about Khoisan anatomy.
  27. ^ Journal des débats politiques et littéraires 21 December 1815
  28. ^ Crais and Scully, Clifton and Pamela (2009). Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. Princeton University Press. 
  29. ^ Quresh, Sadiah (June 2004). "Displaying Sarah Baartman, The 'Hottentot Venus'". History of Science 42. 
  30. ^ Frith, Susan. "Searching for Sara Baartman". Johns Hopkins Magazine. 
  31. ^ Merchant, Carolyn (1980). The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper and Row. 
  32. ^ ed. Lederman and Bartsch, Muriel and Ingrid (2001). The Gender and Science Reader. New York: Routledge. 
  33. ^ Crais, Clifton (2008). Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. Princeton. 
  34. ^ "Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences of the Royal Institute of France". The Journal of Science and the Arts III (V): p. 154. 1818. Retrieved 19 July 2010. 
  35. ^ In The Blood by Steve Jones has it that "Saartje's hands are covered by the marks of the smallpox that killed her" (p. 204).
  36. ^ “The Hottentot Venus, it appears from the French papers,died at Paris last week, after an illness of eight days. Her malady is said to have been the small pox, which the physicians mistook successively for a catarrh, a pleurisy, and a dropsy of the chest.” Times [London, England] 6 Jan. 1816: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 7 Aug. 2012.
  37. ^ Cuvier refers to her instrument as a "guimbarde", usually translated into English as "jew's harp".
  38. ^ Hal Morgan and Kerry Tucker. Rumor! Fairfield, Pennsylvania: Penguin Books, 1984, p. 29.
  39. ^ X, Jacobus, Dr., pseud; Carrington, Charles. Untrodden fields of anthropology : observations on the esoteric manners and customs of semi-civilized peoples. American Anthropoligical society. Retrieved 19 July 2010. 
  40. ^ Kerseboom, Simone. ""Burying Sara Baartman": Commemoration, Memory and Historica Ethics.1". Stellenbosch University History Department. Retrieved 23 October 2008. 
  41. ^ The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Woman and Children
  42. ^ "SA takes on poachers". 11 November 2005. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. 
  43. ^ Quresh, Sadiah (June 2004). "DISPLAYING SARA BAARTMAN, THE 'HOTTENTOT VENUS'". History Of Science 42. 
  44. ^ The Times, 10 January 1811; p. 2
  45. ^ ‘Another Venus once I saw, / A young Caffrarian from the Cape ;/And Bond Street swells surveyed with awe/The vast proportions of her shape. / Jet-black and woolly was her hair,/And damson-hued her bounteous lips ;/But more admired, beyond compare,/Were two enormous – pillow-slips./Yet slenderer was her girth than thine,/If measured round that Crinoline!’ From ‘Crinoliniana’ by ‘Dunshunner’ (William Edmondstoune Aytoun:Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine Vol. 93 (572): June 1863, p.763 [1]
  46. ^ Walton: 'Hornpipe' from Facade
  47. ^ National poetry month at the rumpus
  48. ^ Raw Nerves: Lauren Beukes Chats to Diane Awerbuck and Recommends Home Remedies Times Live, 25 March 2013, accessed 14 July 2013


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