It's no surprise that people can be despicable when treating others, but why do we feel that need to take advantage of others and make fun of them? Sarah Baartman was only one out of many people who were mistreated and abused just for being different. Her life was hell even centuries after her death.
We all know about the dark side of the circus. It wasn’t just clowns, acrobats, magicians, and tamed dangerous animals: no, many circuses, including, of course, the incredibly popular “freak shows,” based their entertainment on the suffering and exploitation of people who were different from what was considered normal. People with a certain deformity or an anomalous trait were exhibited as objects for the amazement and entertainment of others without any consideration for their well-being. If you read about the stories of all the people who were treated like that, you'll see that, sadly, they're all horrible and tragic. The story of the woman we’re going to talk about is probably not that different from all the others who were used and ridiculed for money just like her, but the difference here is that she became a symbol of the horror and abuses of colonialism.
Her name was Sarah Baartman (also known as Saartjie, short for Sarah in Dutch), although that was the name she was given by her Dutch masters. According to historical records, she was born in South Africa's Eastern Cape in 1789. Now, from the title, you can start imagining how tragic her life was, but the thing is that she started experiencing horrible things from the very first years of her short life. When she was only two years old, her mother passed away, and when she was just a teenager her father was murdered while driving his cattle. We don't know that much about her early life, but there’s evidence that she got married at a very young age. She also worked at a Dutch colonist's house owned by the same man who murdered her husband. Soon after, she gave birth, but the baby died. And then, just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, it did.
After losing everyone near her, she was sold to a slave trader called Pieter Willem Cesars, a black freeman in Cape Town, and was sent to live with this man’s brother, Hendrik. One day, William Dunlop, an English surgeon, visited the Hendrik household and was impressed by Sarah's looks. Convinced that she was something people would pay good money to see, he persuaded his friend to take her to London and promote her as a rare specimen. Hungry for money, Hendrik accepted and took the teenage girl out of her native country to an unknown and strange place. But what did Sarah have that made her so unique and valuable?
What made her so "special" was her figure: she had enormous buttocks and unusually large genitalia. She actually had steatopygia, a condition characterized by the accumulation of fat in the buttocks. This is more common in women than in men, and it’s not that uncommon in certain tribes in Africa, where their bodies adapted to their living conditions and diet. Still, she was something bizarre that Europeans found delightful.
According to the story, Hendrik and Dunlop made Sarah sign a contract where it was stipulated that she would travel to England to continue her domestic work for her master, while also “performing” at certain events. It was also settled that she was going to receive a percentage of the earnings, so that she could save up to return to Africa when the contract ended. Now, this is only allegedly, since soon after she started getting famous, several anti-slavery groups criticized and started a protest to end the terrible humiliation and exploitation this woman was being forced into. It’s said that the case was taken to court and that Hendrik showed the documentation that won him the case. Many believe the document was made right when the legal process began and that she didn’t even know what she was signing since she was illiterate. A different theory claims that she agreed to sign it because losing the case would’ve meant she would return to her native country as a slave (like she was before), and she now had some liberty.
She was named the “Hottentot Venus,” a term that nowadays is considered offensive by many but back then was used to designate those belonging to the Khoikhoi and San tribes. This was the beginning of the nineteenth century, and carnivals were extremely popular, especially those who had human "curiosities" or people who came from strange “exotic” lands (these were the main attractions at a time when colonialism was at its peak). Now you can see why the arrival of this Venus was such an immediate success.
Her success was undeniable, not only as entertainment, but also as an intriguing scientific specimen. When she was exhibited, she would be seen dressed with very little fabric that supposedly represented the tribe she was from, and adorned with tons of "exotic" accessories like feathers and beads. It’s even said that these people even rented her for private demonstrations where people were allowed to touch her and do whatever they wanted. However, even back then, London was already a multicultural and diverse city, and soon her act became boring for some people. As a result, Sarah's act started moving all over Britain and Ireland, were she was a hit (well, not her precisely… you know what I mean).
Here the story gets a bit unclear. In some versions, Hendrik Cesars dies, and in others, he moves back to Africa, but what’s true is that the horrors Sarah had experienced so far were nothing compared to what happened to her next. In 1814, she was taken by an “animal trainer” called Reaux to Paris where he changed the routine of the show. Now, she was exhibited in a cage accompanied by a baby rhino. Reaux played the role of the circus ringmaster and pretended to tame her like a wild animal. In this way, she was completely dehumanized and humiliated.
Behind the scenes, she became a heavy drinker and smoker and started going down a path of destruction. Some versions of her story even claim that Reaux prostituted her among aristocratic men who wanted to experience what it was like to have sex with a "unique specimen."
Then, she became acquainted with George Cuvier, a prominent naturalist and zoologist working at the Museum of Natural History, who got really interested in studying Sarah. He was one of the main retractors of the evolutionary theory but strongly believed in a cyclical process in which species became extinct to give way later to new, similar species. He asked Reaux for permission to study and analyze Sarahm, and he agreed, leading to one of the first studies that started what became known as racial science.
After months of evaluations, Cuvier published a text in which he claimed that Sarah Baartman was the link between the animal and the human families, without realizing that she wasn’t the only one with her condition, and moreover reinforcing the horrible idea that African people are the wildest and most inferior human race.
Sarah’s hellish story didn’t go on for much longer, and in 1815, when she was only 26 years old, she passed away of what was officially called “inflammatory and eruptive disease.” Historians and specialists who have studied her case believe that she died of either pneumonia, syphilis, or the consequences of her severe alcoholism. But if you thought this was all, you couldn’t be more wrong. Cuvier managed to retrieve her body from the authorities and carried out several examinations of it, although he never actually performed an autopsy. He made a plaster cast of her body and dissected it. He sent her skeleton, brain, and genitals to the Museum of Natural History (now called Musée de l'Homme, Museum of Man), where these were exhibited until 1974.
It wasn’t until President Nelson Mandela requested the French government to send Sarah’s remains back to her country that people stopped seeing her as just an object of amusement. Well, not really. It took the French government years to create a clear document in which they acceded to repatriate her remains but remained quite firm in showing other countries that they were not going to allow them to take back the many treasures they got during colonization. So, after all, she was still considered a treasure they had acquired. She didn’t arrive in South Africa until 2002 where she was at last honorably buried. Finally, after almost two centuries of suffering and objectification, she would finally rest. But what about all the other people who lived through something similar? I’ll leave that for you to think about.
For more stories, take a look at these: