Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman (1789 – December 29, 1815) was the most famous of at least two Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as sideshow attractions in 19th century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus—"Hottentot" as the then-current name for the Khoi people, now considered an offensive term, and "Venus" in reference to the Venus figurines.
Saartjie Baartman was born to a Khoisan
family in the vicinity of the Gamtoos River
in what is now the Eastern Cape
of South Africa
. She was orphaned in a commando
raid. Saartjie, pronounced "Sahr-key", is the Afrikaans
form of her name; it translates to English
as "Little Sarah", where the use of the diminutive
form commonly indicates familiarity or endearment rather than a literally short stature. Her original name is unknown.
Baartman was a slave of Dutch farmers near Cape Town when Hendrick Cezar, the brother of her slave owner, suggested that she travel to England for exhibition, promising her that she would become wealthy. Lord Caledon, governor of the Cape, gave permission for the trip, but later regretted it after he fully learned its purpose. She left for London in 1810.
Saartjie was exhibited around Britain, showing what to Europeans were highly unusual bodily features. Due to her steatopygia
, she had inordinately large buttocks; in addition, she had sinus pudoris
, otherwise known as the tablier
word for "apron") or "curtain of shame", all names for the elongated labia
of some Khoisan women. (Although "sinus pudoris" refers only to the labia of Khoisan woman, all labia
vary in size and shape to some degree.) To quote Stephen Jay Gould
, "The labia minora
, or inner lips, of the ordinary female genitalia are greatly enlarged in Khoi-San women, and may hang down three or four inches below the vagina
when women stand, thus giving the impression of a separate and enveloping curtain of skin". Saartjie never allowed this trait to be exhibited while she was alive.
Her exhibition in London, scant years after the passing of the Slave Trade Act 1807, created a scandal. An abolitionist benevolent society called the African Association, the equivalent of a charity or pressure group, petitioned for her release. Baartman was questioned before a court in Dutch, in which she was fluent, and stated that she was not under restraint and understood perfectly that she was guaranteed half of the profits. The conditions under which she made these statements are suspect, because it directly contradicts accounts of her exhibitions made by Zachary Macaulay of the African Institution and other eyewitnesses.
Baartman later traveled to Napoleonic Paris
where an animal trainer exhibited her under more pressured conditions for fifteen months. French anatomist Georges Cuvier
and French naturalists visited her and she was the subject of several scientific paintings at the Jardin du Roy
She died on December 29, 1815 of an inflammatory ailment, possibly smallpox, while other sources suggest she contracted pneumonia. An autopsy was conducted, and published by French anatomist Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville in 1816 and by Cuvier in the Memoires du Museum d'Histoire Naturelle in 1817. Cuvier notes in his monograph that Baartman was an intelligent woman who had an excellent memory and spoke Dutch fluently. Her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were placed on display in Paris' Musée de l'Homme until 1974, when they were removed from public view and stored out of sight; A molded casting was still shown for the following two years.
There were sporadic calls for the return of her remains beginning in the 1940s but the case became prominent only after U.S. biologist Stephen Jay Gould published an account, The Hottentot Venus, in the 1980s. When Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994, he formally requested that France return the remains. After much legal wrangling and debates in the French National Assembly, France acceded to the request on 6 March 2002. Her remains were repatriated to her homeland, the Gamtoos Valley, on 6 May 2002, over 200 years after her birth.
Baartman became an icon in South Africa as representative of many aspects of the nation's history. The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, a refuge for survivors of domestic violence, opened in Cape Town in 1999. South Africa's first offshore environmental protection vessel is named after Sarah Baartman.
- Poet M.K. Asante, Jr. wrote "Ghetto Booty: The Hottentot Remix" for Saartjie Baartman in his 2005 book Beautiful. And Ugly Too. The poem tells Baartman's story and warns the hip hop generation not to repeat racist cycles of black female exploitation.
- Dame Edith Sitwell allusively referred to her in "Hornpipe", a poem in the satirical collection "Facade".
- Diana Ferrus, a South African poet of Khoisan descent, wrote "A Poem for Sarah Baartman" while studying in Europe. It includes the desire "to wrench [her] away-/ away from the poking eyes... ."
- Poet Elizabeth Alexander explores her story in a 1987 poem and 1990 book, both entitled The Venus Hottentot.
- The science fiction author Paul Di Filippo used her story as the basis for the second novel of his Steampunk Trilogy.
- Barbara Chase-Riboud wrote a fictional biography entitled Hottentot Venus.
- Her life features in the 2007 Afrikaans romantic novel Frats by Chris Karsten.
- Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks fictionalizes her story in Venus. Playwright Lydia R. Diamond's play "Voyeurs de Venus" also examines her story through the guise of 20th century author.
- In 2006, a feminist artist and filmmaker adopted the name Venus Hottentot to direct an independent film with erotic content called Afrodite Superstar with the intention of reclaiming the strength and voice of Sarah Baartman as a sexually exploited woman of color.
- Canadian performance artist Mara Verna created a web-based project and travelling exhibition cataloguing her story.
- Novelist Joyce Carol Oates uses the image and the story of the Hottentot Venus in her 2006 novel Black Girl/White Girl.
- Crais, Clifton and Pamela Scully (2008). Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. Princeton, Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-13580-9
- Gilman, Sander L. (1985). "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature". In Gates, Henry (Ed.) Race, Writing and Difference 223-261. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
- Gould, Stephen Jay (1985). "The Hottentot Venus". In The Flamingo's Smile, 291-305. New York, W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-30375-6.
- Holmes, Rachel (2006). The Hottentot Venus. Bloomsbury, Random House. ISBN 0-7475-7776-5, ISBN 1400061369 (U. S. edition).
- Strother, Z.S. (1999). "Display of the Body Hottentot", in Lindfors, B., (ed.), Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business. Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Press: 1-55.
- Qureshi, Sadiah (2004), 'Displaying Sara Baartman, the 'Hottentot Venus', History of Science 42:233-257. Available online at http://www.shpltd.co.uk/qureshi-baartman.pdf