History and heritage


Sarah Baartman, at rest at last

Sarah Baartman, displayed as a freak because of her unusual physical features, was finally laid to rest 187 years after she left Cape Town for London. Her remains were buried on Women’s Day, 9 August 2002, in the area of her birth, the Gamtoos River Valley in the Eastern Cape.

Baartman was born in 1789. She was working as a slave in Cape Town when she was "discovered" by British ship’s doctor William Dunlop, who persuaded her to travel with him to England. We’ll never know what she had in mind when she stepped on board – of her own free will – a ship for London.

But it’s clear what Dunlop had in mind – to display her as a "freak", a "scientific curiosity", and make money from these shows, some of which he promised to give to her.

Baartman had unusually large buttocks and genitals, and in the early 1800s Europeans were arrogantly obsessed with their own superiority, and with proving that others, particularly blacks, were inferior and oversexed.

Baartman’s physical characteristics, not unusual for Khoisan women, although her features were larger than normal, were "evidence" of this prejudice, and she was treated like a freak exhibit in London.

The 'Hottentot Venus'

She was called the "Hottentot Venus", 'Hottentot' being a name given to people with cattle. They had acquired these cattle by migrating northwards to Angola and returned to South Africa with them, about 2 000 years before the first European settlement at the Cape in 1652. Prior to this, they were indistinguishable from the Bushmen or San, the first inhabitants of South Africa, who had been in the region for around 100 000 years as hunter-gatherers.

Khoisan is used to denote their relationship to the San people. The label "Hottentot" took on derogatory connotations, and is no longer used.

Venus is the Roman goddess of love, a cruel reference to Baartman being an object of admiration and adoration instead of the object of leering and abuse that she became.

Baartman 
objectified
Baartman objectified: an early nineteenth century French print titled, 'La Belle Hottentot'

She spent four years in London, then moved to Paris, where she continued her degrading round of shows and exhibitions. In Paris she attracted the attention of French scientists, in particular Georges Cuvier.

No one knows if Dunlop was true to his word and paid Baartman for her "services", but if he did pay her, it wasn’t sufficient to buy herself out of the life she was living.

Once the Parisians got tired of the Baartman show, she was forced to turn to prostitution. She didn’t last the ravages of a foreign culture and climate, or the further abuse of her body. She died in 1815, at the age of 25.

The cause of death was given as "inflammatory and eruptive sickness", possibly syphilis. Others suggest she was an alcoholic. Whatever the cause, she lived and died thousands of kilometres from home and family, in a hostile city, with no means of getting herself home again.

Cuvier made a plaster cast of her body, then removed her skeleton and, after removing her brain and genitals, pickled them and displayed them in bottles at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris.

Some 160 years later they were still on display, but were finally removed from public view in 1974. In 1994, then president Nelson Mandela requested that her remains be brought home.

Other representations were made, but it took the French government eight years to pass a bill – apparently worded so as to prevent other countries from claiming the return of their stolen treasures – to allow their small piece of "scientific curiosity" to be returned to South Africa.

In January 2002, Sarah Baartman’s remains were returned and buried on 9 August 2002, on South Africa's Women's Day, at Hankey in the Eastern Cape Province.

Her grave has since been declared a national heritage site.

Marang Setshwaelo, writing for Africana.com at the time, said Dr Willa Boezak, a Khoisan rights activist, believed that a poem written by Khoisan descendant Diana Ferrus in 1998 played a major role in helping bring Baartman home. Boezak said: “It took the power of a woman, through a simple, loving poem, to move hard politicians into action.”

Whatever the reason, Sarah Baartman is home, and has finally had her dignity restored by being buried where she belongs – far away from where her race and gender were so cruelly exploited.

Updated: 14 May 2012

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A poem for Sarah Baartman


By Diana Ferrus

“I’ve come to take you home –
home, remember the veld?
the lush green grass beneath the big oak trees
the air is cool there and the sun does not burn.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white
and the water in the stream chuckle sing-songs
as it hobbles along over little stones.

I have come to wretch you away –
away from the poking eyes
of the man-made monster
who lives in the dark
with his clutches of imperialism
who dissects your body bit by bit
who likens your soul to that of Satan
and declares himself the ultimate god!

I have come to soothe your heavy heart
I offer my bosom to your weary soul
I will cover your face with the palms of my hands
I will run my lips over lines in your neck
I will feast my eyes on the beauty of you
and I will sing for you
for I have come to bring you peace.

I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white –
I have come to take you home
where I will sing for you
for you have brought me peace.”


Diana Ferrus

Diana Ferrus, of Khoisan descent, wrote “A poem for Sarah Baartman” while studying in Utrecht, Holland, in 1998. She said of the process: “One evening I was looking at the stars and I thought to myself, ‘They’re so far away. But if I were home, I’d be able to touch every one of them.’ My heart just went out to Sarah, and I thought, ‘Oh, God, she died of heartbreak, she longed for her country. What did she feel?’ That’s why the first line of the poem was ‘I’ve come to take you home’.”


Sarah or Saartjie?

For decades she has been referred to as “Saartjie”, a Afrikaans diminutive form of “Sara”, the name appearing on her British baptism certificate. The diminutive form “tjie” is thought nowadays to be patronising, hence the renaming “Sarah”.


In honour...

The Department of Arts and Culture has allocated millions to construct the Saartjie Baartman Centre of Remembrance.

South Africa named its first environmental protection vessel after Baartman. It was commissioned in 2005.


A film

Zola Maseko's documentary, The life and times of Sara Baartman, has won half-a-dozen awards, including Best African Documentary.


More Sarah Baartman links

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