Saartjie Baartman also known as Sara Baartman was a Khoisan lady born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape in 1789.
She lost both of her parents at tender ages. She would go through more tragedy later in life when her partner got murdered by a Dutch colonist, the baby she had with the same partner later fell prey to death.
Sara Baartman was nicknamed the ‘Hottentot Venus’. The word ” Hottentot” was at the time used to describe the Khoisan peoples of South Africa, a term that is now deemed derogatory.
In October 1810, she signed a contract with an English ship surgeon, William Dunlop and entrepreneur Hendrik Cesars, in whose house she worked. Sara, an illiterate, agreed to take part in shows in England.
Upon arrival in England, she was exhibited at a venue in London’s Picadilly Circus, where many gazed on her body especially her large buttocks, with some even allowed to touch her.
Although many see this act as derogatory, Rachel Holmes, author of The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman said, “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.”
As part of her show, Baartman had to put on a nude-coloured skin tight clothing with accessories such as feathers and beads, she was also required to smoke a pipe as part of the show.
Many wealthy English people paid big sums to have private demonstrations of Sara Baartman in their homes.
It is unclear whether Sara Baartman acted on her own will to be a part of the circus show or whether she was coerced. In 1807, slave trade was abolished although slavery itself was still a big part of society.
Some organisations including the African association launched a public campaign against the exhibition of Baartman, even advocating to take her home to South Africa. However, Baartman denied being coerced by her owner, stating that she did it on her own will and was also being given a share of the profits. It was, however, believed that she was forced to those words.
Baartman was exhibited over 200 times in freak shows and science fairs during her stay in London all through her “career”.
She died as a result of an inflammatory disease at the age of 25/26. Yet after her death, she continued to be a circus freak. Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs were put on display in a Paris museum until 1974.
Although she died on 29 December 1815, her body parts were not buried until 2002.