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Sarah Baartman

In 1810, Saartjie Baartman was brought to

Europe from South Africa to be displayed as
a sexual freak and example of the inferiority
of the black race.
The Sad, Strange Life Of Sarah Baartman, Who

Was Put In A Circus Freak Show For Having A

Huge Butt

Colleen Conroy
143.6k views12 items
The Sarah Baartman story is not a pretty one, nor
does it have a happy ending. The brief, sad life of
the poorly-dubbed, “Hottentot Venus,” (a moniker
that's no longer used as its deep racism has been
universally acknowledged) was fraught with blatant
exploitation, racism, and abuse. A Khoisan woman
born in 1789 in South Africa, Sarah "Saartjie"
Baartman fell into bad luck early in life, when she
was smuggled into England to perform in human
exhibitions – or, to put it more bluntly, freak shows.
From there, Baartman became a tragic 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 made out to be exotic to the point of
otherworldly – that is, if she were from a world vastly
inferior to that of her audience.
So, who was the Hottentot Venus, and why should
we still care? Some 200 years later, Sarah “Saartjie”
Baartman retains relevance as an important symbol,
especially in the ongoing climate of extreme racial
tension in the United States. As recently as
2014, Kim Kardashian’s “Break The Internet” cover
for Paper Magazine received backlash from all sides,
with many critics arguingthat the cover directly
evoked images of Baartman with its focus on
Kardashian's otherworldly derriere. The implications
raised by contemporary ties to Baartman’s life call
for a closer look at a lesson that should have been
long-since learned.
First Off, It’s Sarah, Or Saartjie – Anything But The
Photo: The Reaper Files/Youtube
Even Sarah’s name (whose “real” Khoisan name can’t
seem to be recovered) is steeped in racist history.
Saartjie is the Dutch diminutive of “Sarah,” translating
roughly to “Little Sarah,” a designation that can be
seen as endearing – or condescending and diminishing
– depending on the context. Her stage name, the
“Hottentot Venus,” refers to the language her tribe
spoke, formally known as Khoekhoe, or “Nama.”
In the age of European colonization in Africa, Dutch
colonists referred to the Khoekhoe language as
“Hottentot,” a mocking approximation of the clicking
and chirping tones of the language that translates
roughly to “stammerer,” and yet another way to paint
indigenous Africans as savage and inferior. “Venus”
refers to the Greek goddess of fertility, a stab at what
Europeans deemed as Sarah's overdeveloped feminine
features – be it her rear, her breasts, and even her
genitalia. Today, the term “Hottentot” is recognized as
highly offensive and racist, and it is no longer used to
describe any people of the Khoisan tribes.
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A Black And White Male Duo Took Baartman To
Photo: The
Reaper Files/Youtube
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 that saw an opportunity to
make some money off the young Khoi woman’s figure
and skin color.
Technically, Baartman wasn't Cesars's slave (she was
his house servant and wet nurse to his wife), but she
came into their servitude when her partner was killed
by a Dutch colonist, and she didn't have many other
options. The two men built up the possibility of
earning money in Europe and the luck of
said opportunity, 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 saying 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 impossibly 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 the
crowds, so they could get their money’s worth.
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Crowds, But It Was Actually The Result Of A
Medical Condition

Photo: The Reaper

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 talk regarding
her supposed hyper-fertility and "primitive gene
pool." However, 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 and tapering down the
legs is very common, normal even, 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, all of this illustrated stark
physical differences between themselves and Africans,
further reinforcing the growing racist discourse of the
time and creating a wild exoticism around the African
female body.
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Photo: William
Heath/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Part of Baartman’s success is attributed to England’s
hype surrounding big 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.
As bizarre as it may seem, England was rife with rear-
end jokes, metaphors, and comments, and Baartman’s
proportionally huge buttocks made a perfectly timed
landing among all the hysteria. All of this worked in
the favor of boosting 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. However, the clownish references between
the two didn't quite generate positive attention for
Baartman; rather, they reinforced cartoonish, mocking
approximations of the young African woman.
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A Group Of Abolitionists In England Actually
Petitioned To “Free” Baartman
Photo: The Reaper Files/Youtube
The only problem was, nobody could determine which
of the diluted versions of “freedom” that were on offer
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 the case made it to trial, but it didn't
progress very far past that. 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 said statement is highly
questionable, given her limited English and the
surrounding environment of the entire situation.
Despite the abolitionists’ efforts, Baartman remained
an attraction – if anything, the trial only increased her
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Sarah Baartman Was Sold To An Animal Trainer In
Photo: Éditeur : A Paris chez Martinet, Libraire, rue du
Coq, N° 15, et Chez Charon rue Saint Jean de Beauvais
N° 26/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
As if being treated like an animal wasn’t enough,
Baartman was eventually sold like one in September
1814, to S. Reaux, an animal keeper in Paris. He
continued Baartman’s performances, displaying her at
the prestigious Palais Royal. It must be understood,
this was an enormous, historically
significant compound, literally owned by royalty,
sharing space with the Louvre and other landmark
buildings in Paris. This would be the modern-day
equivalent of putting her on display 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
during this time.
She was regarded in an immensely zoological manner,
and it was this shift that would soon open the door for
even more damaging incidents to occur. She took to
heavy drinking, and there were rumors of prostitution,
though it is not entirely clear if this was the case. It
was here that she caught the eye of the 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.
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Baartman Became A Scientific “Muse” To French
Naturalists And Artists
Photo: Ecmeyers714/Youtube
Soon after seeing Baartman in Reaux’s display,
Cuvier requested to study her as a scientific subject.
Presumably seeking further publicity, Reaux agreed,
and Baartman quickly became a hot topic among
French scientists. For multiple days, she was the
subject of scientific paintings at the Jardin du Roi in
Paris, and Cuvier made observations that culminated
in statements about her anatomy and movements such
as, “something brusque and capricious about them
that recalled those of monkeys.”
These scientific paintings would become enshrined,
tragic reminders of what is considered to be a key part
of the foundation of scientific racism. What Cuvier was
really after was an examination of Baartman’s genitals,
in order to inspect the presence of the elongated labia.
Cuvier wanted to confirm his theory that, “the more
‘primitive’ the mammal, the more pronounced would
be the sexual organs and sexual drive,” or, in other
words, his claim that Africans were closer scientifically
to animals than to other humans. Baartman refused to
show her genitals (despite many false claims,
Baartman never posed fully nude, for performance or
scientific examination), but Cuvier’s highly regarded
status enabled his insinuations to stand in for facts.
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Sarah Baartman Never Received An Autopsy, Only
A Scientific Dissection
Photo: The Reaper Files/Youtube
Sarah Baartman died on December 29, 1815, at the
young age of 26. An alcoholic, she died alone and left
many questions for history to try to settle. Causes of
her death are debated – the official culprit is an
inflammatory disease that many liken to syphilis,
smallpox, or pneumonia, but since an autopsy was
never performed, the truth will never be known.
However, less than 24 hours after her death,
Cuvier finally got his way, and performed a highly
invasive, highly sexual scientific dissection of
Baartman’s body. Her bones were boiled, and her
brain and genitals were removed. Notes were taken by
French anatomist Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville,
and reports were later published in Cuvier’s 1817
collection, Memoires du Museum d'Histoire Naturelle.
In these notes, Ducrotay makes somewhat humanizing
remarks about Baartman’s body, such as noting her
slender hands and feet, and how in life she had been a
lively, pleasant woman. However, Cuvier took the
dissection notes and spun them in a way that fit into
the narrative he was writing, that being one of
scientific racism. His "findings" helped justify the
exploitation of Africans, be it on the scale of a one-
woman performance, or the colonization of an entire
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Her Skeleton, Brain, And Genitalia Remained On
Display In One Of France’s Largest, Most Respected
Museums Until 1974
Photo: Brother
For nearly 160 years after the end of her brief, tragic
life, Sarah Baartman’s legacy continued to gather
crowds, jeers, and comparisons to animals rather than
Similar to the infamous cases of phrenology emerging
at the time, Cuvier compared Baartman to an
orangutan, and now he finally had scientific evidence
of the elongated labia. Along with a plaster cast he had
made pre-dissection, Cuvier displayed Baartman’s
skeleton, brain, and genitals at the Museum of Man in
Paris until 1974 (again, this is a largely respected
national museum in France, held in very high regard
when it comes to science and discovery). Her skeleton
and body cast were displayed side-by-side, to
emphasize her large buttocks, ever the selling point of
Throughout the decades, various complaints and
attempts to remove Baartman's remains were made,
to no avail. This lasted until the 1970s, when feminists
began to argue that the exhibit was destructive and
degrading to women. Finally, in 1974, the remains
were removed from display, but still kept in
possession by France.
Her Remains Weren’t Returned To Her Homeland
Until Nearly 200 Years After Her Death
Photo: Leo za1/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
It took a fight from Nelson Mandela to get them back.
Before Mandela made formal demands to France for
the repatriation of her remains, there had
been scattered attempts to retrieve the remains from
as early as the 1940s, one of the more publicized
being a poem written in 1998 by Diane Ferrus, a South
African poet of mixed Khoisan descent, titled, “I’ve
Come To Take You Home.”
She writes, “I have come to wrench you away, away
from the poking eyes of the man-made monster, who
lives in the dark with his clutches of imperialism, who
dissects your body bit by bit, who likens your soul to
that of Satan, and declares himself the ultimate God!”
In 1994, after the democratic elections in South Africa,
Nelson Mandela initiated the official process of
returning Baartman’s remains from France. Finally, in
2002, on South Africa’s Women’s Day, her remains
were finally at laid to rest. She was buried in Hankey
in the Gamtoos River Valley, the origin of her birth.
Nearly 200 years after her lonely death, Baartman’s
final resting place has been declared a national
heritage site.
Beyonce Was Trying To Make And Star In A
Hollywood Film About Baartman’s Life
Photo: BBGunBilly/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0
Baartman’s story is nothing short of dramatic, and has
inspired art ranging from simple poetry to an entire
opera. Among these productions are two movies, a
2010 French film titled, Venus Noire, and a 1998
independent documentary, The Life and Times of Sarah
However, when rumors emerged in 2016 of a Sarah
Baartman film in the works, by none other
than Beyonce herself, controversy escalated quickly.
Khoisan and other indigenous tribeswomen and men
spoke out against such claims, arguing that it wasn't
her story to tell, nor was she at all qualified to tackle
such a story in the mainstream. In the end, nothing
came of it, and reps for Beyonce claimed there were no
grounds for such rumors in the first place. Most
importantly, the event called attention to the
sensitivity needed when it comes to historical events
and the representation and voice that oppressed
peoples, such as the Khoisan or any other indigenous
tribe in South Africa, continue to fight for.
Even Today, Baartman’s Legacy Struggles To Find
Even Footing Among Contemporary Views Of
Photo: Hallyu Back/Youtube
From whatever angle you choose to approach
Baartman, she is an icon. In South Africa, her legacy is
a beacon of hope and a reminder of a dark past, as well
as a symbol of the continued fight against women’s
oppression. A national women’s center focusing on
sexual trauma and abuse is named after her, and
current legal battles over the clandestine sex-trade
and prostitution practices in South Africa raise
difficult moral questions of “freedom,” that are quite
reminiscent of conversations surrounding Baartman’s
trial in England.
However, in America, mainstream pop culture tends to
ignore the darker, political undertones and focus on
the praising and embracing of the African female body.
From Destiny Child’s “Bootylicious,” to Sir Mix-A-
Lot’s “Baby’s Got Back,” to Nicki Minaj’s newest Paper
Magazine “Minaj A Trois” cover story, it seems to be
the age of the booty, of the curve. However,
many feminists find this problematic, raising the
question of, how far the movement has really
come. Does this current obsession come from the same
place of leering and curiosity that drove crowds to
view the Hottentot Venus over 200 years ago? These
feminists and scholars point out that the continued
commodification of the African female figure won’t
come without the consequences of the past.
The significance of Sarah Baartman
By Justin ParkinsonBBC News Magazine
 7 January 2016
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Two centuries ago Sarah Baartman died after

years spent in European "freak shows". Now
rumours over a possible Hollywood film about
Baartman's life have sparked controversy.
Sarah Baartman died on 29 December 1815, but her
exhibition continued.
Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on
display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains
weren't repatriated and buried until 2002.
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
Today she is seen by many as the epitome of colonial
exploitation and racism, of the ridicule and
commodification of black people.
Reports of Beyonce planning to write and star in a
film about Baartman have been denied by the singer's
representatives. But the rumours were enough to
generate concern.
Jean Burgess, a chief from the Khoikhoi group that
Baartman was from, argued that Beyonce lacked "the
basic human dignity to be worthy of writing Sarah's
story, let alone playing the part". But Jack Devnarain,
chairman of the South African Guild of Actors, said
filmmakers had the ""right to tell the stories of
people you find fascinating and that's what we must be
careful not to object to".
Even in denying any link to a film, Beyonce's
representative said: "This is an important story that
should be told."

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Baartman's life was one of huge hardship. It is thought
she was born in South Africa's Eastern Cape in 1789,
her mother died when she was two and her father, a
cattle driver, died when she was an adolescent. She
entered domestic service in Cape Town after a Dutch
colonist murdered her partner, with whom she had
had a baby who died.
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.
The reason was that Baartman, also known as Sara or
Saartjie, had what was called "steatopygia", resulting
in extremely protuberant buttocks due to a build-up of
These made her a cause of fascination when she was
exhibited at a venue in London's Piccadilly Circus after
her arrival. "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," says Rachel Holmes, author of The Hottentot
Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman.
On stage she wore skin-tight, flesh-coloured clothing,
as well as beads and feathers, and smoked a pipe.
Wealthy customers could pay for private
demonstrations in their homes, with their guests
allowed to touch her.
Her arrival in England coincided with speculation over
whether Lord Grenville and his coalition of Whigs -
known as the "broad bottoms" because of Grenville's
own large behind - would try to seize government.
This was a gift for cartoonists. One creation, entitled A
Pair of Broad Bottoms, shows Grenville and
Baartman standing back-to-back, with another figure
measuring their respective posterior sizes.

Image copyrightBRITISH MUSEUM

Baartman's promoters nicknamed her the "Hottentot
Venus", with "hottentot" - now seen as derogatory -
then being used in Dutch to describe the Khoikhoi and
San, who together make up the peoples known as the
The British Empire had abolished the slave trade in
1807, but not slavery itself. Even so, campaigners were
appalled at Baartman's treatment in London. Her
employers were prosecuted for holding Baartman
against her will, but not convicted, with Baartman
herself testifying in their favour.
"The question remains - was Baartman coerced, as
abolitionist/humanitarian campaigners claimed, or
was she acting on her own free will?" says Christer
Petley, a history lecturer at Southampton University.
"If she was coerced, she might have felt too
intimidated to tell the truth in court. We'll never know.
"The case is complex and the relationship between
Baartman and her handlers was certainly not equally
weighted, even if she had some element of choice or
felt she could gain something - material or otherwise -
from her performance."
Holmes says Baartman's show also included dancing
and playing several musical instruments, and that a
"sophisticated" audience in London, a city in which
ethnic minorities weren't rare even at that time, would
not simply have stopped and looked at her for long on
account of her race.
After the case, Baartman's show gradually lost its
novelty and popularity among audiences in the capital
and she went on tour around Britain and Ireland.
In 1814 she moved to Paris with Cesars. She became a
celebrity once more, drinking at the Cafe de Paris and
attending society parties. Cesars returned to South
Africa and Baartman came under the influence of an
"animal exhibitor", with the stage name Reaux. She
drank and smoked heavily and, according to Holmes,
was "probably prostituted" by him.
Baartman agreed to be studied and painted by a group
of scientists and artists but refused to appear fully
naked before them, arguing that this was beneath her
dignity - she had never done this in one of her shows.
This period was the beginning of the study of what
became known as "racial science", says Holmes.
Baartman died aged 26. The cause was described as
"inflammatory and eruptive disease". It's since been
suggested this was a result of pneumonia, syphilis or
The naturalist Georges Cuvier, who had danced with
Baartman at one of Reaux's parties, made a plaster
cast of her body before dissecting it. He preserved her
skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals, placing
them in jars displayed at Paris's Museum of Man. They
remained on public display until 1974, something
Holmes describes as "grotesque".

copyrightAPImage captionSouth African and French
officials pose next to a plaster cast of Baartman in
Paris, prior to her remains returning to South Africa
"The domination of Africans was explained with the
aid of science, thereby establishing the Khoisan ('the
Hottentots') as the most ignoble group in the
progression of mankind, purported to mate with the
orangutan," wrote Natasha Gordon-Chipembere,
editor of Representation and Black Womanhood: The
legacy of Sarah Baartman.
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

copyrightAPImage caption2002: The re-interment of
Baartman's remains takes place in South Africa
Several books have been published about her
treatment and cultural significance. "She has become
the landscape upon which multiple narratives of
exploitation and suffering within black womanhood
have been enacted," wrote Gordon-Chipembere. She
argued that, amid all this, Baartman "the woman,
remains invisible".
The 2010 film Black Venus and the 1998 documentary
The Life and Times of Sara Baartman have covered her
story. Even for those outside South Africa who are
unaware of Baartman, there have been subtle cultural
In 2014, the cover of Paper magazine showed reality
television star Kim Kardashian balancing a champagne
glass on her protruding bottom. Some critics
complained the image was reminiscent of
contemporary drawings of Baartman. The Kardashian
photo referenced a 1976 image by the same
photographer - Jean-Paul Goude - which showed black
model Carolina Beaumont naked and in a similar pose.
Last year, a plaque at her burial site in Hankey was
splashed with white paint, causing further distress.
This happened a couple of weeks after the removal
from Cape Town University of the statue of Cecil
Rhodes, the 19th Century businessman and politician
who declared the British to be "the first race in the
world", following protests by students.
"People are working out how they want to deal with
these issues over time," says Petley. "Often they've
been covered up and it's now time to re-evaluate
them. The important thing is to do so in a way that
avoids mud-slinging and look seriously at these
aspects of our past."