Saartije (Sara) Baartman is a name that every black person should know. You won’t hear about her too much in the mainstream media. And with good reason. Mainly because Sarah’s body was exploited, much like black women today in music videos.
Baartman was born was born in 1789 at the Gamtoos river in what is now known as the Eastern Cape. She was born of the Khoi and worked as a servant in Cape Town when she was “discovered” by British doctor William Dunlop, who persuaded her to travel with him to England to make a fortune.
It’s unclear what made Baartman agree to travel with Dunlop, but it’s obvious what he had in mind – to display her as a “freak”, a “scientific curiosity”, and make money from shows on a continent where Khoikhoi women were considered anthropological freaks.
Dubbed The Hottentot Venus, her image swept through British popular culture. Abolitionists unsuccessfully fought a court battle to free her from her exhibitors.
In 1814, she was taken to Paris and continued to be exhibited as a freak. She became the object of scientific and medical research that formed the bedrock of European ideas about black female sexuality. When she died in 1816, the Musee de l’Homme in Paris took a death cast of her body, removed her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals in jars. These were displayed in the museum until as late as 1985.
After five years of negotiating with the French authorities for the return of Saartjie Baartman’s remains, the South African government, together with the Griqua National Council which represents the country’s 200,000 Griqua people, part of the Khoi-San group, brought Saartjie Baartman back to South Africa.
On Friday 3, May 2002, in a moving ceremony attended by many representatives of the Khoikhoi people, Saartjie Baartman was welcomed back to Cape Town. Her final resting place is in the Eastern Cape, where she was born.