The world is filled with ironic tales and unfortunate events, which sometimes are far beyond our wildest imagination. Indeed, women are employed to perform known acts at the circus, but have you ever heard of women being objectified in a freak show due to her large buttocks? Well, it was a sensation back in the 19th Century.
The tale revolves around the life of Sarah Baartman, more commonly known as “Saartjie.” She was born in 1789 in Cambeddo valley in the eastern part of the Cape Colony. At earlier stages of her life, Sara began featuring on stage in Britain. In 1810, her employer, Hendrik Cesars, took her to England along with an English doctor who worked at the Cape slave lodge named William Dunlop.
William and Hendrik began to show Sarah on stage in London for money. She was displayed under the name “Hottentot Venus.” The term “Hottentot” was slang for the Khoi people, and “Venus” was referred to as the “Roman Goddess of Love & Fertility.” They profited from Sara to the extent that if visitors wanted to touch Sarah’s body, or even just to see her outside of her regular performing schedule, they had to pay a fee. There was violence in the shows and at first, Sara was forced to perform naked, to which she denied and appeared in the clothing of her choice.
The abolitionists saw Sarah and argued that her performance on stage was inappropriate and she was performing against her will. Still, Dr. William managed to forge a fake contract out of nowhere between him and Sarah, in which Sara consented to perform on stage. Eventually, the court had to rule in favor of the exhibition due to the fake contract presented by Dr. William.
Sarah performed in England and Ireland for four years. After some time, Hendriks left, and William continued to display her at county fairs. William got Sarah baptized and she was named Sarah Baartman. After William died in 1814, Sarah was sold to Henry Taylor who brought her to Paris. It was an endless chain of atrocities with no breakthrough.
Henry sold Sarah to an animal trainer in Paris, S.Reaux. Reaux forced her to present herself in front of the audience for amusement at Palais-Royal. A professor, Georges Cuvier, also the founder of the comparative anatomy at the Museum of National History, tried to examine Sara and attempted to find the gaps between human beings and animals. That was not the only thing he did; Sarah was also raped by Reaux and later on bore Reaux’s child. The child, Okurra Reaux, eventually died at the age of 5 years of an unknown disease.
Sarah Baartman succumbed to an unknown inflammatory disease, probably smallpox, on 29 December 1815. She passed away at the young age of 26. It was also suggested that she died of syphilis or pneumonia.
Even after death, Sarah’s body was of significant importance. Initially, her corpse was retained on the grounds of a significant specimen of humanity and henceforth, contained special scientific interest. Later on, her skeleton and skull were displayed in the Muséumde Histoire Naturelled’ Angers. In 1937, the remains were moved to Musée de l’Homme and remained there till the 1970s. The skeleton was removed from display in 1974 and then the cast in 1976 due to the rising complaints of misrepresentation of women.
Efforts to Bring Her Remains Back to Home Soil:
In 1978, a poet, Diana Ferrus, wrote a poem of Khoisan Descent; “I’ve come to take you home”. The poem played a pertinent role in the movement to bring the remains of Sarah back to her homeland. In 1994, Nelson Mandela, then President of South Africa, also requested the French to return the remains of Sarah Baartman. The French did not assent until 6th March 2002. Her remains were buried in her homeland after almost two hundred years on 9th August 2002.
Sarah Baartman became an icon for the South Africans. She was declared as a representative of many aspects of South African History. A refuge for the domestic violence victims was opened in Cape Town in 1999, named after Baartman as “The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women & Children. The first offshore environmental protection vessel of South Africa, named “The Sarah Baartman,” also happens to be named after her.
On December 8th, 2018, the Memorial Hall of The University of Cape Town was also renamed, Sarah Baartman Hall.
Sarah Baartman was not the only Khoi woman to be taken away from her homeland for displaying purposes in Europe’s freak shows. Her story has often been used for personal agendas, rather these stories ought to be used to bring awareness to the fierce atrocities brought upon the women and children across the globe suffering from the ill-minded fantasies and motives of madmen. The rights of society’s suppressed segments must be protected to prevent the humiliation of other women & children who should be respected and appreciated for their features instead of being tortured at the cost of others’ entertainment.