Kim Kardashian, not a stranger to controversy, set out to break the internet in 2014 with a photo splattered over the cover of Paper magazine. Renowned French photographer Jean-Paul Goude, who took the photograph for the cover, created a sensationalist post that looked oddly similar to a popular photo of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman.
Many thought the photo of Kim balancing a champagne glass on her rear was “historic”, but a second look at the photo reveals the history of a woman who gained questionable fame that caused her to be poked and prodded as a sexual object in a freak show and in the corners of Europe’s high society.
Kim patted herself for her gracious “talent”.
But a photo that has been described as lazy sensationalism didn’t exactly show the existence of such talent. Sarah Baartman’s figure, however, has been a worldwide symbol of racism, colonization, and the objectification of the black body.
What seemed to be the cover of a magazine was simply a recreation of pain in color. Many people who are familiar with Baartman would likely remember her from an 1810 illustration of the profile of her semi-nude body that once served as an advertisement for her performance in the freak show in Europe. What many are not familiar with is her story.
Although buried in 2002, Sarah died in 1815. But who was Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, the woman from a rural Khoisan village who became the “Hottentot Venus” of London and Paris?
Sarah Baartman was born in 1789 about 50 miles from the Gamtoos River, which is now known as the Eastern Cape in South Africa. She was born into a Khoikhoi family known for their pastoral life. Her mother died when she was only 2 years old, and her father was killed by Bushmen while driving cattle when she was an adolescent.
In her teenage years, Sarah married a Khoikhoi man who was a drummer. They had a child together who died shortly after birth.
The Dutch colonialists, who were looking to expand their territory, had come in conflict with Khoisan people (Khoikhoi and San Bushmen). As a result, she was absorbed into the Dutch labor system around the age of 16. Her husband was murdered by the Dutch and she was sold to a slave trader named Pieter Willem Cezar. As a result of her being held by the Dutch, she was given the name “Saartjie”, a diminutive for Sara.
Cezar took Sarah to Cape Town where she worked as a domestic slave for Pieter and his brother Hendrik. While she was in Cape Town, her looks were considered abnormal, inferior, and exotically sexy by many Europeans. Sarah had a medical condition called “steatopygia” that caused her to have substantial levels of tissue on her buttocks and thighs. She soon found herself the subject of curious attention and sexual intrigue. Eventually, she caught the eye of a Scottish military doctor named Alexander Dunlop.
Apart from his medical career in the military, Alexander Dunlop was known to supply British showmen with rare species of animals. After Sarah caught his eyes, he presented her with the opportunity to exhibit her body in London. Dunlop worked with the Cezars, who were in debt from bad loans, to bring Sarah to Europe.
On October 29, 1810, Sarah allegedly signed a contract with Alexander Dunlop. The contract stipulated the terms of their relationship. Sarah was to travel with Dunlop and Hendrik Cezar in London and Ireland as a domestic servant and be exhibited for entertainment purposes. She was to receive a portion of the earnings gotten from such exhibitions. She was also to return to South Africa after five years.
The contract was dubious for many reasons. First, Sarah couldn’t read, as she was illiterate. She came from the Khoikhoi tradition that didn’t read or write but passed down history orally. Second, the Cezars were in deep financial trouble when the contract was signed, inferring that Sarah was seen as a tool to help them escape bankruptcy.
All Eyes on the Unusual Woman in Piccadilly
Upon arrival in London, Sarah was put to work immediately. Her unusually large buttocks and the proportions of her figure quickly made her the subject of fascination in the streets of London.
Piccadilly, a street that was full of various oddities such as people with different deformities, hosted Sarah’s shows.
In the Egyptian Hall at Piccadilly Circus on November 24, 1810, Baartman was first exhibited. On stage, she wore skin-tight, flesh-colored clothing. She was also embroidered with beads and feathers, and she smoked a pipe. For 2 shillings, people came to see the newest oddity in Piccadilly. For a few more shillings, you could poke her with a stick or cane. Wealthy customers paid more for private shows in their homes, and their guests were allowed to touch her. Promoters described Baartman’s genitalia as “resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey’s throat”.
On November 26, 1810, The Times reported about how she looked: “…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.”
A handwritten note made on an exhibition flyer by someone who saw Baartman in London in January 1811 indicates curiosity about her origins and probably reproduced some of the language from the exhibition:
“Sartjee is 22 Years old, is 4 feet 10 Inches high, and has (for a Hottentot) 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 another, of small stature, very subtle & fierce; the Dutch could not bring them under subjection, and shot them whenever they found them.”
Rachel Holmes, author of The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman, said in her book:
“You have to remember that, at the time, it was highly fashionable and desirable for women to have large bottoms, so lots of people envied what she had naturally, without having to accentuate her figure.”
Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography by Clifton C. Crais and Pamela Scully mentioned why people came to see her:
“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.”
Charles Matthews, a comedian who lived in London at the time of Sarah’s station there, recorded his observations of visitors who came to see her. “One pinched her; one gentleman poked her with his cane; one lady employed her parasol to ascertain that all was, as she called it, ‘nattral’,” he wrote.
Sarah’s exhibitions were very popular among the high and low in London society. Her arrival in England coincided with speculations that Lord Grenville and his coalition of whigs (known as the “broad bottoms” because of Grenville’s large behind) would try to seize the government. Sarah was a gift to cartoonists who drew caricatures comparing Grenville’s behind to Sarah’s. One cartoonist, William Heath, drew a caricature with another figure measuring their respective posterior sizes. He titled it A Pair of Broad Bottoms.
Baartman promoters, Dunlop and Cezar, nicknamed her the “Hottentot Venus.” A derogatory term that was used for the Khoisan people.
The Slave Abolitionist Movement and Baartman
As Sarah Baartman’s shows grew in popularity in Piccadilly, the British campaign against slavery was becoming more popular around the world. In 1807, Britain abolished the slave trade, but not slavery itself. However, the treatment of Baartman by her promoters caught the attention of the abolitionist.
An abolitionist society called the African Association conducted a newspaper campaign for her release. A prominent abolitionist, Zachary Macaulay, was at the forefront of the protest for her release. However, Hendrik Cezar, under the guise of caring for Baartman, countered that she was entitled to earn a living however she wanted.
Zachary Macaulay and other abolitionists decided to take the matter to court. At the Court of King’s Bench, evidence was presented. The African Association described the degrading conditions under which Baartman had been brought into Britain. It also described that she was exhibited for show in inhumane conditions that included coercion and animal-like treatment.
During the judicial inquiry, a written contract emerged. The contract was purportedly signed by Baartman. Cezar and Dunlop used this document to satisfy the authorities that Baartman came to London under her own free will. When it was Baartman’s turn to testify, she corroborated the contract. She was questioned for three hours, and she testified in their favor.
As a result, Dunlop and Cezar weren’t convicted.
The circumstances surrounding the case have largely been called to question. Many historians have agreed that because Dunlop was in the courtroom, it was hard for Baartman to testify against her handlers. Baartman also stated in her account that she wasn’t tortured, sexually abused, or under restraint, but this directly contradicted what many eyewitnesses saw during her shows. The written contract that was produced, which Baartman didn’t have a copy of, has been considered legal subterfuge.
However, the court adjusted the terms of the contract to ensure that Baartman was “paid fairly” and given better clothes.
After the case, Sarah’s show was less popular among the London audience. Her handlers began to take her “on tour” around Britain and Ireland. She was said to have been baptized in Manchester as “Sarah Baartman”. Some historical accounts say she got married at the same time.
France: Perversity Turns Baartman Into a Specimen
After spending four years in Britain, it was time to move. In September 1814, Baartman was moved from England to France.
France was a country suffering from duality of mind about the abolition of slavery. It had first outlawed slavery in 1794, then re-instated it in 1802. Tired, it abolished it permanently in 1848. This duality of mind caused Baartman’s condition to worsen in France.
Henry Taylor, the man who brought Baartman to France, sold her off to an animal trainer named S. Réaux. She instantly gained celebrity status again. There, she was exhibited by Réaux at the Cafe de Paris, Palais Royal, and attended society parties. She was showcased alongside a baby rhinoceros, and was given orders to “sit” or “stand” like a dog. She was displayed almost completely naked. She wore just a little more than a tan loincloth. It was because of her insistence that she be allowed to cover that which was culturally sacred that she was allowed the loincloth.
Crais and Scully state in their book: “By the time she got to Paris, 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.”
During her exhibitions in France, she became entangled with scientific racism. French naturalist, Georges Cuvier, became attracted to Baartman’s constant displays. Seeing how her body looked piqued Cuvier’s interest. He asked Réaux if he could allow Baartman’s body to be studied as a scientific specimen, to which Réaux agreed.
Despite being a critic of theories of evolution, Cuvier was well known for his contributions to anatomy and early recognition of dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles. Cuvier and others examined Sarah, with Frédéric Cuvier (the younger brother of Georges, though also a naturalist and paleontologist) commenting:
“She was obliging enough to undress and to allow herself to be painted in the nude.”
But this was untrue. Baartman was always wearing her loincloth, but there was a Western over-sexualized perception about people in other places in the world who practiced culturally-sacred nakedness.
Cuvier and other French anatomists, zoologists, and physiologists studied Baartman’s body. Her large buttocks and extended labia were used to compare Blacks to orangutans. Her body was thought to be evidence of her sexual primitivism and intellectual equality with an orangutan.
Frustrated by the conditions of her life, Baartman drank and smoked heavily. Some evidence suggested that she was being prostituted in France.
Baartman died on December 29, 1815, at the age of 26. The cause of her death is still not certain. Some evidence suggests that she died of smallpox, pneumonia, or alcoholism. Others strongly believe that she died of syphilis. What was certain about her death is that she died poor and unhappy.
She died in Réaux’s house at Cours des Fontaines.
The Freak Show Continues
After Baartman’s death, Réaux’s deportation to England was ordered. As a result, Réaux donated her body to the museum.
Georges Cuvier asked for Baartman’s body so that he could study her further. Cuvier did not perform an autopsy on Baartman. He made a plaster cast of her body before dissecting it. He pickled her brain and genitals and placed them into jars, which were placed on display initially at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle d’Angers, and then moved to the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) until 1974. Her body parts were kept in the Museum’s collection.
Cuvier’s study of Baartman “helped shape” European “science”. It furthered the theory that African women were “savages” and distinct from the “civilized female” of Europe.
Baartman’s body remained on display for over a century, denied a burial.
The Long Walk to Freedom
The post-apartheid government of South Africa led by Nelson Mandela began a campaign to have Baartman’s remains returned. For many South Africans, Baartman was the symbol of European inhumanity and the brutality of the colonial period in Africa. Her life accentuated the humiliation of indigenous people.
The end of apartheid in South Africa signalled the immediate need to return her body home. The image of her body rotting on the shelf of a Paris museum was unimaginable. What had happened to Sarah Baartman was a metaphor. The degrading treatment of black people during apartheid was still fresh in the memories of many.
Nelson Mandela took up the cause in 1994, asking French president François Mitterrand to release Baartman’s remains. The French were initially reluctant. They saw the opening up of Baartman’s remains for a return as a movement that could cause their plundered artifacts that were now littering French museums to be returned.
The French Parliament looked for reasons to delay her return. Senate officials said, at a point, that since South Africa had not raised the Baartman issue for a few months, there was no reason to follow through.
After Mitterrand’s death, South Africa’s foreign minister, Alfred Nzo, again formally raised the issue with France’s minister of operation, Jacques Godfrain. Nzo said at the time: ”The return of South Africa to the international community marked the beginning of the process of healing and restoring of our national dignity and humanity. The process will not be complete while Saartjie Baartman’s remains are still kept in a museum.”
However, after 8 years of continuous wrangling with the French government, France acceded to the request to return her body on March 6, 2002. The French Parliament was careful to have drafted a legislative act that would prevent other nations from requesting their artifacts. The act read: “the surviving remains of the person known as Sarah Baartman will cease to form part of the public collections of the National Museum of Natural History. The administrative authority has a time limit of two months, starting from the date of entry into force, within which to deliver the remains to the Republic of South Africa.”
Baartman’s body was repatriated to her homeland, the Gamtoos Valley, on May 6, 2002. On August 9, 2002, hundreds of South Africans attended the ceremony of re-internment in Hankey, about 470 miles east of Cape Town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region. This day coincided with Women’s Day in South Africa. She was buried 200 years after her birth.
Baartman’s remains were clothed in traditional garb and purified with herbs that were set alight, in keeping with Khoisan custom. Two aloe wreaths adorned her coffin, and President Thabo Mbeki announced that her gravesite would become a national landmark.
President Thabo Mbeki said at the funeral:
“The story of Sarah Baartman is the story of the African people. It is the story of the loss of our ancient freedom… It is the story of our reduction to the state of objects who could be owned, used, and discarded by others.”