The Sad, Strange Life Of Sarah Baartman

The brief, sad life of Sarah Baartman, also known as the “Hottentot Venus” – a moniker no longer in use due to its xenophobic origins – was fraught with blatant exploitation, racism, and abuse. A South African, Khoisan woman born in 1789, Baartman suffered much misfortune early in life when she was smuggled into England to perform in human exhibitions – or, as they were then called, freak shows

From there, Baartman became a sensation across the UK and France, performing scantily clad in a cage while the sheltered masses of Northern Europe gasped and prodded at her “unusual” physical proportions and unfamiliar skin color. Baartman was fetishized for her perceived exoticism to an otherworldly extent.

Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman's relevance as a symbol of developing race relations has only grown with passing years. As recently as 2014, Kim Kardashian’s “Break The Internet” cover for Paper Magazine received backlash from all sides, with many critics arguing that the cover directly evoked images of Baartman with its focus on Kardashian's prominent – and what some claim to be exaggerated – backside. Contemporary culture's ties to Baartman’s life call for a closer examination of a lesson that should have been learned long ago.

  • Baartman's Name Was Dismissed In Favor Of A Derogatory Epithet

    Baartman's Name Was Dismissed In Favor Of A Derogatory Epithet
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Even Sarah’s assigned name is steeped in a troubling and bigoted history. Saartjie is the Dutch diminutive of “Sarah,” translating roughly to “Little Sarah,” a designation that can be considered either endearing or diminishing depending on the context. Her stage name, the “Hottentot Venus,” refers to the language her tribe spoke, formally known as Khoekhoe, or “Nama.” Her Khoisan name has unfortunately been lost to time.

    During the European colonization of Africa, Dutch colonists referred to the language as “Hottentot,” a mocking approximation of the clicking and chirping tones of the language which translates roughly to “stammerer,” yet another way to paint indigenous Africans as savage and inferior. “Venus” refers to the Greek goddess of fertility, an attempt at what Europeans deemed as Sarah's overdeveloped feminine features – her rear, breasts, and even genitalia. Today, the term “Hottentot” is recognized as highly offensive and is no longer used to describe any people of the Khoisan tribes.

  • A White Man And A Black Man Smuggled Baartman Into England

    Saartjie was smuggled into England by her master, a free Black man by the name of Hendrik Cesars, and British military doctor Alexander Dunlop, two enterprising conspirators who seized an opportunity to profit off the young Khoi woman’s figure and skin color.

    Technically, Baartman wasn't Cesars's slave – she was his house servant and his wife's wet nurse – but she was placed in their servitude when her partner was killed by a Dutch colonist. The two men elaborated upon the possibility of earning money in Europe, the likes of which she would never find as a house servant in South Africa. Although she was illiterate, she signed a contract with Dunlop and Cesars stating that she would perform of her own will.

    The two were the first to present London with “The Hottentot Venus.” In Piccadilly Circus, they placed her in a cage, where she donned tight garments and full “African” regalia, including feathers, beads, and a pipe. Her rear was on display, and she was allegedly asked to dance or even bend over for crowds.

  • Baartman's Unusually Large Backside Stemmed From A Medical Condition

    Baartman’s audiences largely gathered for a glimpse at her substantial buttocks – the feature that won her the most attention, as well as fueled much discussion regarding her supposed hyper-fertility and "primitive gene pool." What her appreciators failed to mention – or even understand – was that Baartman’s figure was natural in her native South Africa.

    In the Khoisan tribes, the phenomenon of steotopygia, or the accumulation of fat on the rear legs is very common to the point of normalcy and recognized as a marker of health and beauty in Khoisan culture. Steotopygia is also often associated with the elongated labia, another physical trait common among Khoisan women and equally taboo to Europeans. 

    To 19th-century Europeans, these stark physical differences between themselves and Africans further reinforcing the growing racial discourse of the time and creating a wild exoticism around the African female body. 

  • Large Backsides Were Fashionable In 19th-Century England

    Part of Baartman’s success is attributed to England’s fascination with large behinds in the early 1800s. This was largely political – the Whig party, literally referred to as the Big Bottoms, Broad Bottoms, or Bottomites (a namesake referencing their leader Lord Grenville’s massive backside), was poised to take over Parliament in the case of George III’s decline. 

    At the time, England was rife with rear-end jokes, euphemisms, and derogatory comments, and Baartman’s proportionally large buttocks only added to the hysteria. This timing collectively boosted Baartman’s popularity nearly overnight – she quickly became the subject of cartoons, prints, and posters.

    In Britain’s notoriously satirical manner, several caricatures were produced showing potential Parliament leader Grenville dressed as the Hottentot Venus, as well as the two figures comparing rears, side by side. The clownish comparisons hardly generated positive attention for Baartman; rather, they reinforced cartoonish, mocking approximations of the young African woman.

  • A Group Of Abolitionists Petitioned To 'Free' Baartman

    Nobody could determine which of the diluted versions of “freedom” available at the time would be best for Baartman. When Saartjie arrived in London in 1810, the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had abolished the trade of slaves, but the topic of what to do with the former slaves was still a bit murky. Regardless, the presence of abolitionism was emerging, and a group called the African Association formed a petition to free Baartman, or at least investigate whatever bond was tying her to Cesars and Dunlop.

    They found Baartman’s performances grotesque and inhumane, and although the case made trial, it didn't progress much further. As described in N. Gordon Chipembere’s book, Representation and Black Womanhood: The Legacy of Sarah Baartman, the Association was concerned with marked similarities between slave conditions and Baartman’s performance, be it the locks on the outside of her cage or the treatment of body as property. Both men were prosecuted, but Baartman made a formal statement in court that she was there to perform of her own free will, and she earned small sums of money for her acts.

    The authenticity of her statement is highly questionable, given her limited English and her surrounding environment. Despite the abolitionists’ efforts, Baartman remained an attraction – if anything, the trial only increased her popularity.

  • Baartman Was Sold To A Parisian Animal Trainer

    Baartman Was Sold To A Parisian Animal Trainer
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Baartman was eventually sold in September, 1814, to S. Reaux, a Parisian animal keeper. He continued Baartman’s performances, displaying her at the prestigious Palais Royal – the 19th-century, European equivalent of displaying her in Times Square.

    Reportedly, she was first displayed in a cage with a baby rhinoceros, and Reaux instructed her to pose in similar manners to the animals. She was rumored to have even worn a collar around her neck at one point.

    She was regarded in an immensely zoological manner, and this shift eventually opened the door for dangerous behavior on Baartman's part. She took to heavy drinking, and unsubstantiated rumors claim that she began earning money as a prostitute. It was here that she caught the eye of famous French scientist Georges Cuvier, the surgeon general of Napoleon Bonaparte, keeper of the menagerie at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, and widely considered a founder of French naturalism and comparative anatomy.