For decades people have striven for perfection. From the Greeks who invented the Olympic games with the desire for us all to become great athletes, to the Egyptians who would compete to build the highest pyramid, the Aryan race on which Hitler's Nazi regime was based and the Victorians who viewed the white race as superior to the black one. This Entry takes a look at Sarah Baartman (1789 - 1816) whose life changed forever once she came into contact with European society.
Sarah Baartman1 (otherwise known as Saartje Baartman or 'the Hottentot Venus'), was born a member of the Khoikhoi tribe in 1789 in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. In Southern Africa there are two main Khoisan2 'people': the Khoikhoi — which used to be called Hottentots3 (but this term is currently frowned upon) — and the San or Bushmen. The San are hunters/gatherers while the Khoi farmed with livestock. Sadly as a result of the colonisation of South Africa by Europeans, both these groups have been decimated. In effect, nothing remains of the original KhoiKhoi today — though their genes are still present, to a varying extent, in some South African individuals and communities.
The Khoi women were particularly distinctive in appearance. As Napoleon's surgeon general, Baron Georges Cuvier, noted in a famous treatise in 1817 Extraits d'observations after examining Baartman. What is striking about her shape is the enormous size of her hips, wider than 18 inches4, and the protruberance of her buttocks, which was more than half a foot. She also had enlarged labia which gave rise to the description, 'Hottentot Apron'. In this way the women of the Quena tribe were seen as different to white, European women.
One of the first people to notice this difference was a British Army medical officer named Alexander Dunlop, who discovered Baartman living in Cape Town. He lured her to England with the promise that if she were to show the people of England her body she would become rich. However, when Baartman made it to England in 1810 she discovered that she had been lured there under false pretences.
When she arrived in London, England, she was put under the scrutiny of scientists and displayed in front of the general public, just like the Elephant Man and Tom Thumb. She was exhibited in a cage and would appear naked on a stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered. Crowds would pay just one shilling to see her perform and were quite content to mock and hurl vulgarities at her.
One Jamaican man named Robert Wedderburn, who campaigned against racial injustice, tried to put a stop to Baartman's maltreatment as a slave. But although many backed him, the courts viewed things differently, arguing that she had entered a contract of her own free will to appear in front of people in this fashion. However, it is questionable that there ever was a contract.
Baartman was eventually sold to an animal trainer working for a travelling circus in and around Paris, where she continued being humiliated under scrutiny of the public eye. She turned to prostitution as a way of escaping but ended up an alcoholic.
After she died of an infection on 1 January, 1816, Cuvier created a mould of her body out of wax, dissected and preserved her skeleton, pickled her genitalia and brain, and put them on display at the Musée de L'Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris. There they were exhibited until the 1970s, when they were taken off public display and placed in the store rooms of the museum.
Returning to the Homeland
South African President Nelson Mandela formally requested the return of Sarah's body in 1994. The former French President François Mitterrand agreed to make arrangements, but it wasn't until an act was passed in February 2002 that they felt they could go ahead with the handover. Although the French were worried that they would have to return further museum artefacts to other countries, they went ahead and the earthly remains of Sarah Baartman were returned in a coffin draped with the South African flag.
On 9 August, 2002, (also known as Women's Day) Baartman was given a traditional funeral and buried in Hankey near the Gamtoos River where she was born. Women's day was aptly chosen by the Khoisan people as the women of South Africa see her as symbolic of the abuse and exploitation many of them have been through. The President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, has stated that her grave will become a national monument and another statue will be installed in Cape Town in her memory.
What People Have Said
Her moves had something that reminded one of the monkey and her external genitalia recalled those of the orangutan.
– Baron Georges Couvier
It was not the lonely African woman in Europe, alienated from her identity and her motherland who was the barbarian, but those who treated her with barbaric brutality
– President Thabo Mbeki
The story of Sarah Baartman is the story of the African people. It is the story of the loss of our ancient freedom... It is the story of our reduction to the state of objects who could be owned, used and discarded by others. Sarah Baartman should never have been transported to Europe. Sarah Baartman should never have been stripped of her native, her Khoisan, her African identity and paraded in Europe as a savage monstrosity.
– President Thabo Mbeki
The return of Saartje Baartman to South Africa is a victory for all South Africans and indigenous peoples of the world. It's an historic moment for everyone, especially for women in South Africa. She can be a unifying symbol for us.
– Matty Cairncross, a member of the Khoisan community
The return of her remains marks the end of almost 200 years of degradation, isolation and violation of the dignity of Saartje Baartman. It's good to see that the episode has finally been brought to an end in a dignified manner.
– Chief Joseph Little, Chairperson of the National Khoisan Council
After suffering so much offence and humiliation, Saartje Baartman will have her dignity restored — she will find justice and peace
– French Research Minister Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg