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Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus


Many would not know her and neither did I before now,but her story is fastidious and extremely enraging for any black man. Sarah Baartman died on 29 December 1815, and she wasn't the Queen of England, so you wouldn't know her.

Baartman was born into the Eastern Cape Khoisan, the indigenous herding tribe that once populated part of South Africa. As a teenager, she was orphaned after her father and fiance were both murdered in a colonial war, and sold to a trader, Pieter Willem Cesars. He took her to Cape Town, where she worked for his brother as a nursemaid. Around 1810, once the family started experiencing economic difficulties, they looked to Baartman as their next source of income, figuring that in Europe, where curiosity about the Dark Continent ran rampant, a pretty maidservant with notable buttocks and a spotty giraffe skin were a winning combination on which to stake their future.


Brought to Europe seemingly on false pretences by a British doctor, stage-named the "Hottentot Venus", she was paraded around "freak shows" in London and Paris, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks.In October 1810, although illiterate, Baartman allegedly signed a contract with English ship surgeon William Dunlop and mixed-race entrepreneur Hendrik Cesars, in whose household she worked, saying she would travel to England to take part in shows.


They settled in late Georgian London, where freak shows touting “the ne plus ultra of hideousness” or “the greatest deformity in the world” lined Piccadilly. England was transitioning from a sentimental primitivism — the noble savage — to the popular Victorian notion of ethnology. With the slave trade being abolished just a few years before and the black population of London at about 20,000, their challenge was to make the investment — Baartman — conform to stereotypes and yet also seem like a novelty. They marketed her as a kind of “scantily clad totem goddess,” the Hottentot Venus, sex incarnate. Hottentots, what European traders called the native Khoisan for the clicking sound of their language, “signified all that was strange, disturbing, alien, and possibly, sexually deviant.”

She was objectified in the most literal sense, put on display in front of gaping crowds six days a week, doing suggestive “native” dancing and playing African instruments. Her costume was a flesh-colored silk sheath deliberately cut like a second skin, with copious jewelry at the seams to conceal the fact that she wasn’t technically naked. They also fashioned her a kind of female codpiece, “the effect of its soft folds, fur fringes, and pendulous extensions was to imply that its purpose was to modestly conceal the supposedly elongated labia of a Hottentot woman” — a subject of great interest and speculation among the gawking masses. She became an instant sensation, a subject of countless life drawings, editorials and political cartoons. The London Morning Post wrote, of her body, that “her contour and formation certainly surpass any thing [sic] of the kind ever seen in Europe, or perhaps ever produced on Earth. Economically, sexually, and racially,  she was unfree.”


And while there are a few years in England where she managed to escape the probing public — she was rumored to have gotten married or had a baby, though there is no record of either — the arguably most grim period of her life came after this so-called freedom. In 1814, she and Cesars moved to Paris at the end of the Napoleonic era, where she was examined for three days by scientists at the Museum of Natural History, developed an addiction to alcohol, and, at some point, became a prostitute. She died in Paris of either a respiratory disease or syphilis — the records aren’t clear — at the age of 26. Her death didn’t bring her any dignity, either; her body was cast and dissected and became the property of the Museum of Natural History. Her brain and genitals were kept in bell jars just outside one creepy scientist’s private chambers.

In 1814, a man called Henry Taylor brought Baartman to Paris. He sold her to an animal trainer, S. Reaux, who made her amuse onlookers who frequented the Palais-Royal. Georges Cuvier, founder and professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History examined Baartman as he searched for proof of a so-called missing link between animals and human beings. Baartman's body became the foundation for racist science. Baartman lived on in poverty, and died in Paris of an undetermined inflammatory disease in December 1815.After her death, Cuvier dissected her body, and displayed her remains. 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, could dance according to the traditions of her country, and had a lively personality. Despite this, Cuvier 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. For more than a century and a half, visitors to the Museum of Man in Paris could view her brain, skeleton and genitalia as well as a plaster cast of her body.


Today she is seen by many as the epitome of colonial exploitation and racism, of the ridicule and commodification of black people.
After his election in 1994 as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela requested the repatriation of Baartman's remains and Cuvier's plaster cast. The French government eventually agreed and this happened in March 2002. In August of that year, her remains were buried in Hankey, in Eastern Cape province, 192 years after Baartman had left for Europe.





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