Story Of Sarah Baartman-- How An African Woman’s Curvy Body Sent Her To An Early Grave

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                       In the late 18th century, Sarah Baartman was working as a slave in Cape Town, South Africa, when she was dis...

                       In the late 18th century, Sarah Baartman was working as a slave in Cape Town, South Africa, when she was discovered by a British doctor. Intrigued by her unusually large buttocks and genitals, he persuaded her to accompany him to London. Once there, she was “displayed” as a scientific curiosity.
                      Once the scientific community in London were tired of her, she turned to Parisian exhibitions, and once they were also tired of her, she turned to prostitution.
                        However, as a Khoikhoi woman she was considered an anthropological freak in England, and she found herself put on exhibition, displayed as a sexual curiosity. Dubbed The Hottentot Venus, her image swept through British popular culture. Abolitionists unsuccessfully fought a court battle to free her from her exhibitors. Sarah Baartman was taken to Paris in 1814 and continued to be exhibited as a freak. She became the object of scientific and medical research that formed the bedrock of European ideas about black female sexuality. When she died in 1816, the Musee de l’Homme in Paris took a deathcast of her body, removed her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals in jars. These were displayed in the museum until as late as 1985.

After five years of negotiating with the French authorities for the return of Sarah Baartman remains, the South African government, together with the Griqua National Council which represents the country’s 200 000 Griqua people, part of the Koi-San group, brought Sarah Baartman back to South Africa. On Friday 3 May 2002, in a moving ceremony attended by many representatives of the Khoikhoi people, Sarah Baartman was welcomed back to Cape Town. Her final resting place is in the Eastern Cape, where she was born.

By naming our centre after Sarah Baartman, we are remembering and honouring a woman who has become an icon, not only to her own Khoikhoi people, but to all women who know oppression and discrimination in their lives.

People sometimes ask us for pictures of Sarah Baartman. We have decided not to provide these, out of respect for her and in order not to perpetuate her exploitation by putting her once again on display.

With regard to Sarah Baartman name, we are aware that according to her baptism certificate (Saartjie was baptized in England), her name is written Sara Bartmann. In most writings, she is referred to as Sarah or Saartjie Baartman, where Saartjie is the Afrikaans diminutive of Sarah. There is a current debate on whether Saartjie should be discarded in favour of Sarah, as many women feel that the diminutive form of names is infantilizing. We use Saartjie and Sarah interchangeably, while acknowledging the Centre’s formally registered name as the Saartjie Baartman Centre.

By the age of 25, Sarah Baartman was dead.

We can only guess that Sarah Baartman got on that ship from South Africa thinking she was headed for a better life. We can guarantee that the reality fell far short of her dreams. The story of Sarah Baartman is a must read, for we cannot completely understand where we are unless we first understand where we’ve been.

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