27 February 2009
South Africa is to honour Sarah Baartman – who was displayed as a sideshow attraction in 19th century Europe under the name “Hottentot Venus” – by establishing a centre of remembrance, human rights memorial and Khoi-San Heritage Route in the Eastern Cape.
The Department of Arts and Culture is to open the sites in March to acknowledge the trials and tribulations of Sarah Baartman and the role that South Africa’s Khoisan people played in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid.
The department will also host a series of events, including an academic colloquium at the University of the Western Cape that will focus on issues such as gender oppression, de-humanisation and objectification of women, stereotyping, racism and genocide.
Sarah Baartman, a South African Khoi-San woman, was born in 1789 and worked as a slave in Cape Town, where she was discovered by doctor from a British ship, William Dunlop.
Dunlop persuaded her to travel with him to England, where she was captured as a slave and became the object of racism and exploitation.
She was forced to publicly display her unusual physical features and was subsequently displayed as a scientific curiosity. Her physical characteristics, while not unusual for Khoisan women, were larger than normal to Europeans.
Baartman was later moved to Paris where she continued to be exhibited by an animal trainer in degrading displays for public amusement.
When she died, her body landed under the knife of Baron Cuvier, the leading French anatomist of the day. He had her body cast in wax, dissected and her skeleton articulated. Her genitalia and brain were preserved in a bottle and displayed at the Museum of Mankind in Paris until as recently as 1974.
Return to South Africa
However, a year after the democratic elections in 1994, the new South African government initiated talks with Paris for her remains to be returned.
On 9 August 2002, on South Africa’s Women’s Day, the remains of Sarah Baartman were finally laid to rest at Hankey, the area of her birth near the Gamtoos River Valley in the Eastern Cape Province.
Her grave has since been declared a national heritage site.