Sarah Baartman Biography

(A Freak Show Attraction)

Born: 1787

Born In: Gamtoos River, Kouga Local Municipality, South Africa

Sarah Baartman was a South African woman who became a source of amusement for the Europeans in 19th century due to her abnormally large buttocks. She belonged to Khoikoi community from Africa and was a freak show attraction, termed as ‘Hottentot Venus’. In the early 19th century, her employer brought her to the UK and organized shows to feature Sarah as the main attraction as a ‘freak of nature’. She spent four years like that in Europe, especially among the elite circles in London and Ireland, before she was helped by certain group of British abolitionists, who rescued her and sued the organization for the ‘indecency’ portrayed on the stage. The case was heard but the decision was made in favour of her exhibitions and she went on to perform as a freak on stage in other parts of Europe as well. She then became a subject to search on the missing links between animals and human beings and a few years later, she bid her farewell to the world due to a disease in 1815. Her remains were kept in the Museum of Man in Paris for the general public to see.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Hottentot Venus, Saartjie Baartman

Died At Age: 28

Black Miscellaneous South African Women

Died on: 1815

Childhood & Early Life
Sarah Saartjie Baartman was born in a place in South Africa, which is now known as Eastern Cape, in 1789 to a cattle herding group of Khoikhoi society. She was born in a farm and her family worked as servants of the owner of the farm. Colonialism was at its peak in those days. Sarah lost her parents just after her birth. She was married in her teenage to a drummer from her clan.
Dutch colonists killed her husband in a dispute and she was left all alone, and very soon, she was sold to a slaver, Peter Cesars, who took her to his house in Cape Town, South Africa and Sarah started working as a servant. In October 1810, she got signed on for a contract by Cesars’ English friend who wanted Sarah as a house servant in London and occasionally wanted to use her for ‘entertainment’ purpose.
After the promises of good money, she agreed to move to London. Sarah’s illiteracy became a roadblock in her understanding the true intentions of the people surrounding her and she found herself on stage, in an exhibition as a ‘freak of nature’ due to her large buttocks and unusual colour of skin.
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Exhibitions in Europe
Cesars and Alexander Dunlop first presented her on stage in London in 1810 and in the month of November the same year, she was shown as part of a performance in the Piccadilly Circus in the Egyptian hall in London. The organizers thought a lot of money can be made off her condition and they were right. The people of London had not seen too many black skinned people by then and most importantly, not with that large a bottom.
During the rest of the year, many more exhibitions happened as curiosity about Sarah rose and the word spread around quickly like wildfire and scientific community came ahead to do scientific research on her. The culture of exhibiting people with deformities was a norm in London back in those times and English people found it amusing. Sarah quickly became aware of her being an object of display and tried to fight it. But her employers wouldn’t allow that, although it was agreed upon that she won’t perform nude.
A group called ‘African Association’ came to know of her and filed a court case to set her free and as it was just after a few years of passing Slave Trade Act of 1807 in England, it was a further roadblock for Cesars and Dunlop.
Cases were filed, and when Sarah was presented in front of the court, she denied all the allegations on her owners and said that she came to England by her own free will and she didn’t intend to go back to her homeland. She further said that she wasn’t getting sexually abused or mistreated and that she was happy the way she was getting treated.
However, the court case only increased her popularity and she started getting more and more audiences for her shows. Somehow, she got out of England and appeared on stages in Ireland in 1812. A year prior to that, Sarah was baptized and there has been written proofs that she got married in December 1811, on the same day she got baptized.
By September 1814, French people had heard about her and demands started to rise to bring her to France and a Frenchman named Henry Taylor took the leap and brought her for exhibitions in Paris. There, she became the subject of curiosity for several artists and scientists who wanted her for their artworks and researches respectively. She became more of a slave to the French people. But even there, she refused to strip naked even after getting offered a large sum of money.
French people treated her worse in the most brutal ways possible and she ended up being poor and there are evidences that she was sexually abused, and it has been proved that sometimes, chains were tied around her neck. Her promoters didn’t care much about the slavery charges and her inhumane treatment continued until she died of an inflammatory disease.
Death & Legacy
In December 1815, Sarah Baartman took her last breath and complications due to smallpox were said to be the reason for her death. There are sources that mention that her frequent sexual abuse in France exposed her to Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. The official autopsy of her body was never done in a traditional way and her death still remains a mystery.
She was later described as a brave and intelligent woman who was fluent in her native language and Dutch and spoke ‘workable’ French and English. She also had an excellent memory and it was also said that she was an extremely beautiful woman if it wasn’t for her physical ‘deformity’.
She became a subject of curiosity around the world after her death and when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa in 1984, he asked France to give back her remains. Sarah became an iconic symbol for the dark African colonial past and several books and poems got written on her, praising her beauty and dignified character.

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