Sara is the short-name used these days for Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan slave woman who at the tender age of 20 was taken from Cape Town to London and then on to Paris to be displayed naked in their streets and at their circuses like an animal her European audiences viewed her to be. Her story is a tearful and moving one. It is at once the story of an everyday woman, a human being, one of us, treated in the most grotesque ways, used as "scientific proof" of "European white superiority."
She was born on the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape in 1789 of a Khoisan family in what is now South Africa. The Khoisans are among southern Africa’s oldest known inhabitants, people who made a major role in shaping South Africa’s past and present. But back in those days, bands of Dutch raiding parties went on horseback to the eastern and northern Cape frontiers to hunt down and exterminate these "bushmen" groups who were considered cattle thieves and a threat to settler society.
Canadian socio-linguist Nigel Crawhall, speaking of the Khoisan people, says this:
"These people moved across this land before any other human being. It was they who named the plants and the trees and the features of this land. . . . There [has been an] explosion of identity . . . [among] people who had spent their whole lives having to hide who they were. These people had been destroyed and now suddenly there [is] light and air."
There was never any light and air for Saartjie. In her late teens, she migrated to Cape Flats near Cape Town where she became a farmer’s slave and lived in a small shack until 1810. That year, she was sold in Cape Town in 1810 at the age of 20 to a British ship’s doctor, William Dunlop, who persuaded her that she could make a great deal of money by displaying her body to Europeans. Dunlop put her on a boat and she ended up in London.
There she was put on display in a building in Picadilly and paraded around naked in circuses, museums, bars and universities. She was most often obliged to walk, stand or sit as her keeper ordered, and told to show off her protruding posterior, an anatomical feature of her semi-nomadic people, and her large genitals, which varied in their appearance from those of Europeans.
Khoisan people anatomically have honey-colored skin and stock their body fats in the buttocks rather than in the thighs and belly. These are natural things for them, but Europeans found them to provide an excuse for stereotyping African blacks in grotesque ways. For example, the British described her genitals as like an apron, "skin that hangs from a turkey’s throat."
Contemporary descriptions of her shows at 225 Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket in London say Baartman was made to parade naked along 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".
There were protests in London for the way Baartman was being treated. The exhibitions took place at a time when the anti- slavery debate was raging in England and Baartman's plight attracted the attention of a young Jamaican, Robert Wedderburn, shown in this portrait, who founded the African Association to campaign against racism in England, and wrote of the horrors of slavery.
Wedderburn is himself an interesting black British radical. He was arrested twice in the early 1800s, once for Sedition for defending a slaves rights to rise up and kill his master, and then a second time for sending among the first revolutionary papers from England to the west Indies. For that, was found guilty of "Blasphemous libel" and served two years in Carlisle jail. He subsequently was released wrote and released his autobiography entitled, The Horrors of Slavery.
Under pressure from his group, the attorney general asked the government to put an end to the circus, saying Baartman was not a free participant.
A London court, however, found that Baartman had entered into a contract with Dunlop, although historian Percival Kirby, who has discovered records of the woman's life in exile, believes she never saw the document.
After four years in London, Sara was handed to a showman of wild animals in Paris, where she was displayed between 1814 and 1815 in a traveling circus, often handled by an animal trainer.
French Research Minister Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg told the French Senate recently that she was also exhibited before "sages and painters," including George Cuvier, surgeon general to Napoleon Bonaparte, and seen by many as the founder of comparative anatomy in France.
Cuvier, shown here, described Baartman’s movements as having "something brusque and capricious about them that recalled those of monkeys." Cuvier used such descriptions to demonstrate the superiority of the European races. Several "scientific" papers were written about Baartman, using her as proof of the superiority of the white race.Jeremy
Nathan, a South African film producer who is making a feature film on the life of Baartman, says such women excited the attention of the Parisian intelligentsia at the time. Cuvier was at the center of an eminent school of social anthropologists who believed she was the missing link, the highest form of animal life and the lowest form of human life.
Her anatomy even inspired a comic opera in France. Called The Hottentot Venus or Hatred to French Women, the drama encapsulated the complex of racial prejudice and sexual fascination that occupied European perceptions of aboriginal people at the time
Sara Baartman died in Paris in 1816, an impoverished prostitute, a lonely woman, and an alcoholic. She had come to be known as the "Venus Hottentot," which was a derogatory term used to describe "bushmen" of southern Africa.
Instead of providing her a decent burial, Cuvier made a plaster cast of Baartman’s body, dissected her and conserved her organs, including her genitals and brain, in bottles of formaldehyde. Along with her skeleton, shown here, Sara Baartman’s brain and genitals were stored somewhere in a back room of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris Her remains including those in the jars were displayed there until 1976.