When Saartje (Sara) Baartman left the shores of Africa, little did she know that her body parts would be returned to her home land 187 years later and that she would fuel the racist notions of black inferiority and black female sexuality in Europe. Dubbed "The Hottentot Venus," she was exhibited as a freak and, in the process, juxtaposed against white ideals of superiority and sexuality. Initially, she was paraded naked at different venues around London and due to agitation by anti-slavery advocates, was taken to Paris. Saartje's predicament embodied issues of racism, sexism and colonialism.
Born in 1789 in the Eastern Cape of present-day South Africa, Saartje was a member of the Khoisan group, the original inhabitants of southern Africa. The Khoisan, pejoratively referred to as the Hottentots, are honey-colored and steatopygic—that is, fat is stored in their buttocks. Europeans viewed the latter feature to be an abnormality and an attestation of racial inferiority.
While in her teens, Saartje migrated to an area near Cape Town, where she was a farmer's slave until she was bought in Cape Town by William Dunlop, a doctor on a British ship. At age 20, Saartje headed for London with Dr. Dunlop where, it was agreed, that they would get rich by displaying her body to Europeans, catering to Europeans' sexual fascination with aboriginal peoples.
Prancing in the nude, with her jutting posterior and extraordinary genitals, she provided the foundation for racist and pseudo-scientific theories regarding black inferiority and black female sexuality. The shows involved Saartje being "led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as ordered." Saartje's predicament drew the attention of a young Jamaican, Robert Wedderburn, who agitated against slavery and racism. Subsequently, his group pressured the attorney general to stop this circus. Losing the case on a technicality, Saartje spent four years in London and then went to Paris where she was exhibited in a travelling circus, and seen frequently controlled by an animal trainer in the show.
It was here that she crossed paths with George Cuvier, Napoleon's surgeon-general, who was also considered to be the dean of comparative anatomy. In his capacity of social anthropologist, he arrogantly and erroneously concluded that she was the missing link. She turned to prostitution and when she died poor in 1816, almost immediately Cuvier had her body cast in wax, dissected and the skeleton articulated. Her organs, including her genitals and brains, were preserved in bottles of formaldehyde. Her remains were displayed at the Musée de L'Homme in Paris until 1974.
In post-apartheid South Africa, efforts were made to retrieve Saartje's remains. In 1994, then-President Nelson Mandela appealed to his French counterpart, but it was not until 2002 that the French Senate approved a bill for repatriation of Saartje's remains to South Africa. In May 2002, her remains were brought home to South Africa after nearly 200 years of humiliation and abuse. In August 2002, she was finally laid to rest in the Eastern Cape.
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