Saartjie Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman taken from the Eastern Cape province of South Africa in the company of Scottish military surgeon William Dunlop in 1810. The pair was to make money by promoting the childless widow as a sideshow attraction and eventual living installation at London’s Piccadilly Circus. They called her Hottentot Venus and audiences flocked to gawk at her protruding buttocks and purportedly abnormally sized sex organ. Dutch settlers referred to the Khoikhoi people as Hottentots because of an alliterative sound or phrase spoken during tribal dances. Hottentot has long-since been considered a derogatory term but in the early 19th century, it was the definitive name for the Khoikhoi people of South Africa.
When William Dunlop named Baartman, perhaps he sought to romanticize the degradation of his ingénue by also choosing to call her Venus, after the Roman goddess of love, victory, fertility and prostitution. The capacious nature of Baartman’s behind was attributed to a condition called steatopygia, an accumulation of fat on the buttocks and upper thigh that was considered a common trait among Khoikhoi women. Baartman’s labia were also uncommonly large in comparison to the European status quo; recorded at three to four inches in length and subsequently referred to as the “Hottentot Curtain,” also known as elongated labia.
Audiences were invited to watch Baartman smoke a pipe, sing songs or play a small string instrument while wearing a sheer, tight fitting garment through which they were invited to poke, pinch and generally molest her for the price of admission.
Audiences were invited to watch Baartman smoke a pipe, sing songs or play a small string instrument while wearing a sheer, tight fitting garment through which they were invited to poke, pinch and generally molest her for the price of admission. Baartman’s body was on exhibit in London over 200 times before being taken to France; where private viewings and house parties afforded a more up close experience for guests, without the thin cloth barrier between Baartman and company. She developed a dependency on alcohol and spent what little money she was given for her performances purchasing whiskey and tobacco.
During the course of her time in Europe, Baartman remained a controversial topic in conversations about the propriety, or lack thereof, of her act as a theatre attraction as well as legal disputes over slavery in England. Baartman’s handlers changed frequently during her five-year stay in Europe due to the provocative nature of her presence in the country. In a letter to Morning Chronicle, published on October 23rd, 1810 one of Baartman’s captors stated his reason for selling her to an Englishman being, the “mode of proceeding at the place of public entertainment seems to have given offense to the Public.” Baartman testified to having been abandoned by her handlers on more than one occasion although she maintained she was never forced to perform against her will. Baartman worked as a prostitute during times of abandon before being sold to a Frenchman who dealt in wild animals. During her time in France, the indignity of her position left her to share a cage with a baby rhinoceros.
Baartman died on December 29th, 1815 at the age of 25 or 26 years old.
Baartman died on December 29th, 1815 at the age of 25 or 26 years old. Her body was cast in plaster before being dissected by French anatomist, Georges Cuvier. Her brain and genitals were both pickled and placed in jars where they were displayed alongside her skeleton and cast model of her body at Musée de l’Homme until 1974. In 1994, Nelson Mandela petitioned France to have the remains of Sara “Saartjie” Baartman returned to South Africa for a proper burial. His request was not satisfied until 2002 and coincided with the opening of the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women & Children; a facility for survivors of abuse in Cape Town, South Africa.
It is not uncommon to meet people who have never heard of Saartjie Baartman.
It is not uncommon to meet people who have never heard of Saartjie Baartman. The more we discuss the heinous experiences of one woman, the more we center her objectification as the basis for current day black female hyper sexuality. Contemporary conversations often compare Baartman to the likes of Nikki Minaj. Since 2013, the rate of surgical enhancement procedures of women’s posteriors to sometimes-cartoonish sizes has surged by eighty-six percent. The same year, labiaplasty procedures to remove the very flesh for which Saartjie Baartman became infamous increased by forty-three percent in the United States alone. The irony of the torturous objectification of one woman for nearly 200 years being repeated voluntarily by descendants of her molesters is confounding. For those who know her story, Baartman is often identified as the unknown icon for sexual difference between European and Black women. If Baartman is studied as a historical figure that represents the dangers of what women endure as a consequence of not having agency of their bodies, hopefully we can honor her memory by protecting that agency and rejecting further dissection of our whole selves.