The significance of Sarah Baartman

  • 7 January 2016
  • From the section Magazine
Sarah Baartman illustrated from the front and in profile Image copyright Science Photo Library

Two centuries ago Sarah Baartman died after years spent in European "freak shows". Now rumours over a possible Hollywood film about Baartman's life have sparked controversy.

Sarah Baartman died on 29 December 1815, but her exhibition continued.

Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren't repatriated and buried until 2002.

Brought to Europe seemingly on false pretences by a British doctor, stage-named the "Hottentot Venus", she was paraded around "freak shows" in London and Paris, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks.

Today she is seen by many as the epitome of colonial exploitation and racism, of the ridicule and commodification of black people.

Reports of Beyonce planning to write and star in a film about Baartman have been denied by the singer's representatives. But the rumours were enough to generate concern.

Jean Burgess, a chief from the Khoikhoi group that Baartman was from, argued that Beyonce lacked "the basic human dignity to be worthy of writing Sarah's story, let alone playing the part". But Jack Devnarain, chairman of the South African Guild of Actors, said filmmakers had the ""right to tell the stories of people you find fascinating and that's what we must be careful not to object to".

Even in denying any link to a film, Beyonce's representative said: "This is an important story that should be told."

Image copyright Getty Images

Baartman's life was one of huge hardship. It is thought she was born in South Africa's Eastern Cape in 1789, her mother died when she was two and her father, a cattle driver, died when she was an adolescent. She entered domestic service in Cape Town after a Dutch colonist murdered her partner, with whom she had had a baby who died.

In October 1810, although illiterate, Baartman allegedly signed a contract with English ship surgeon William Dunlop and mixed-race entrepreneur Hendrik Cesars, in whose household she worked, saying she would travel to England to take part in shows.

The reason was that Baartman, also known as Sara or Saartjie, had what was called "steatopygia", resulting in extremely protuberant buttocks due to a build-up of fat.

These made her a cause of fascination when she was exhibited at a venue in London's Piccadilly Circus after her arrival. "You have to remember that, at the time, it was highly fashionable and desirable for women to have large bottoms, so lots of people envied what she had naturally, without having to accentuate her figure," says Rachel Holmes, author of The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman.

On stage she wore skin-tight, flesh-coloured clothing, as well as beads and feathers, and smoked a pipe. Wealthy customers could pay for private demonstrations in their homes, with their guests allowed to touch her.

Her arrival in England coincided with speculation over whether Lord Grenville and his coalition of Whigs - known as the "broad bottoms" because of Grenville's own large behind - would try to seize government. This was a gift for cartoonists. One creation, entitled A Pair of Broad Bottoms, shows Grenville and Baartman standing back-to-back, with another figure measuring their respective posterior sizes.

Image copyright British Museum

Baartman's promoters nicknamed her the "Hottentot Venus", with "hottentot" - now seen as derogatory - then being used in Dutch to describe the Khoikhoi and San, who together make up the peoples known as the Khoisan.

The British Empire had abolished the slave trade in 1807, but not slavery itself. Even so, campaigners were appalled at Baartman's treatment in London. Her employers were prosecuted for holding Baartman against her will, but not convicted, with Baartman herself testifying in their favour.

"The question remains - was Baartman coerced, as abolitionist/humanitarian campaigners claimed, or was she acting on her own free will?" says Christer Petley, a history lecturer at Southampton University. "If she was coerced, she might have felt too intimidated to tell the truth in court. We'll never know.

"The case is complex and the relationship between Baartman and her handlers was certainly not equally weighted, even if she had some element of choice or felt she could gain something - material or otherwise - from her performance."

Holmes says Baartman's show also included dancing and playing several musical instruments, and that a "sophisticated" audience in London, a city in which ethnic minorities weren't rare even at that time, would not simply have stopped and looked at her for long on account of her race.

After the case, Baartman's show gradually lost its novelty and popularity among audiences in the capital and she went on tour around Britain and Ireland.

In 1814 she moved to Paris with Cesars. She became a celebrity once more, drinking at the Cafe de Paris and attending society parties. Cesars returned to South Africa and Baartman came under the influence of an "animal exhibitor", with the stage name Reaux. She drank and smoked heavily and, according to Holmes, was "probably prostituted" by him.

Baartman agreed to be studied and painted by a group of scientists and artists but refused to appear fully naked before them, arguing that this was beneath her dignity - she had never done this in one of her shows. This period was the beginning of the study of what became known as "racial science", says Holmes.

Baartman died aged 26. The cause was described as "inflammatory and eruptive disease". It's since been suggested this was a result of pneumonia, syphilis or alcoholism.

The naturalist Georges Cuvier, who had danced with Baartman at one of Reaux's parties, made a plaster cast of her body before dissecting it. He preserved her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals, placing them in jars displayed at Paris's Museum of Man. They remained on public display until 1974, something Holmes describes as "grotesque".

Image copyright AP
Image caption South African and French officials pose next to a plaster cast of Baartman in Paris, prior to her remains returning to South Africa

"The domination of Africans was explained with the aid of science, thereby establishing the Khoisan ('the Hottentots') as the most ignoble group in the progression of mankind, purported to mate with the orangutan," wrote Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, editor of Representation and Black Womanhood: The legacy of Sarah Baartman.

After his election in 1994 as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela requested the repatriation of Baartman's remains and Cuvier's plaster cast. The French government eventually agreed and this happened in March 2002. In August of that year, her remains were buried in Hankey, in Eastern Cape province, 192 years after Baartman had left for Europe.

Image copyright AP
Image caption 2002: The re-interment of Baartman's remains takes place in South Africa

Several books have been published about her treatment and cultural significance. "She has become the landscape upon which multiple narratives of exploitation and suffering within black womanhood have been enacted," wrote Gordon-Chipembere. She argued that, amid all this, Baartman "the woman, remains invisible".

The 2010 film Black Venus and the 1998 documentary The Life and Times of Sara Baartman have covered her story. Even for those outside South Africa who are unaware of Baartman, there have been subtle cultural references.

In 2014, the cover of Paper magazine showed reality television star Kim Kardashian balancing a champagne glass on her protruding bottom. Some critics complained the image was reminiscent of contemporary drawings of Baartman. The Kardashian photo referenced a 1976 image by the same photographer - Jean-Paul Goude - which showed black model Carolina Beaumont naked and in a similar pose.

Last year, a plaque at her burial site in Hankey was splashed with white paint, causing further distress. This happened a couple of weeks after the removal from Cape Town University of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the 19th Century businessman and politician who declared the British to be "the first race in the world", following protests by students.

"People are working out how they want to deal with these issues over time," says Petley. "Often they've been covered up and it's now time to re-evaluate them. The important thing is to do so in a way that avoids mud-slinging and look seriously at these aspects of our past."

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