Sarah Baartman, at rest at last

Sarah Baartman, displayed as a freak because of her unusual physical features, was finally laid to rest 187 years after she left Cape Town for London. Her remains were buried on Women’s Day, 9 August 2002, in the area of her birth, the Gamtoos River Valley in the Eastern Cape.

Baartman was born in 1789. She was working as a slave in Cape Town when she was “discovered” by British ship’s doctor William Dunlop, who persuaded her to travel with him to England. We’ll never know what she had in mind when she stepped on board – of her own free will – a ship for London.

But it’s clear what Dunlop had in mind – to display her as a “freak”, a “scientific curiosity”, and make money from these shows, some of which he promised to give to her.

Baartman had unusually large buttocks and genitals, and in the early 1800s Europeans were arrogantly obsessed with their own superiority, and with proving that others, particularly blacks, were inferior and oversexed.

Baartman’s physical characteristics, not unusual for Khoisan women, although her features were larger than normal, were “evidence” of this prejudice, and she was treated like a freak exhibit in London.

The ‘Hottentot Venus’

She was called the “Hottentot Venus”, ‘Hottentot’ being a name given to people with cattle. They had acquired these cattle by migrating northwards to Angola and returned to South Africa with them, about 2 000 years before the first European settlement at the Cape in 1652. Prior to this, they were indistinguishable from the Bushmen or San, the first inhabitants of South Africa, who had been in the region for around 100 000 years as hunter-gatherers.

Khoisan is used to denote their relationship to the San people. The label “Hottentot” took on derogatory connotations, and is no longer used.

Venus is the Roman goddess of love, a cruel reference to Baartman being an object of admiration and adoration instead of the object of leering and abuse that she became.

Baartman objectified
Baartman objectified: an early nineteenth century French print titled, ‘La Belle Hottentot’

She spent four years in London, then moved to Paris, where she continued her degrading round of shows and exhibitions. In Paris she attracted the attention of French scientists, in particular Georges Cuvier.

No one knows if Dunlop was true to his word and paid Baartman for her “services”, but if he did pay her, it wasn’t sufficient to buy herself out of the life she was living.

Once the Parisians got tired of the Baartman show, she was forced to turn to prostitution. She didn’t last the ravages of a foreign culture and climate, or the further abuse of her body. She died in 1815, at the age of 25.

The cause of death was given as “inflammatory and eruptive sickness”, possibly syphilis. Others suggest she was an alcoholic. Whatever the cause, she lived and died thousands of kilometres from home and family, in a hostile city, with no means of getting herself home again.

Cuvier made a plaster cast of her body, then removed her skeleton and, after removing her brain and genitals, pickled them and displayed them in bottles at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris.

Some 160 years later they were still on display, but were finally removed from public view in 1974. In 1994, then president Nelson Mandela requested that her remains be brought home.

Other representations were made, but it took the French government eight years to pass a bill – apparently worded so as to prevent other countries from claiming the return of their stolen treasures – to allow their small piece of “scientific curiosity” to be returned to South Africa.

In January 2002, Sarah Baartman’s remains were returned and buried on 9 August 2002, on South Africa’s Women’s Day, at Hankey in the Eastern Cape Province.

Her grave has since been declared a national heritage site.

Marang Setshwaelo, writing for Africana.com at the time, said Dr Willa Boezak, a Khoisan rights activist, believed that a poem written by Khoisan descendant Diana Ferrus in 1998 played a major role in helping bring Baartman home. Boezak said: “It took the power of a woman, through a simple, loving poem, to move hard politicians into action.’

Whatever the reason, Sarah Baartman is home, and has finally had her dignity restored by being buried where she belongs – far away from where her race and gender were so cruelly exploited.

Updated: 14 May 2012

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