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The Sad Story of Saartjie Baartman

Imagine being so different from others that you get put on display at freak shows in London and Paris. Without your permission, people stare at your body in awe, and your image becomes a cultural phenomenon. This is what happened to South African Saartjie Baartman, who found herself at the centre of oppressive and discriminative tale that lasted from 1810 to 2002.

Who Was Saartjie Baartman?

Born in 1789, Saartjie Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman who was born in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. As a young girl, Saartjie spent her time on farms, and in the 1790s, she moved to Cape Town which was under British control at the time. In Cape Town, she worked as a washerwoman and a nursemaid where she lived alongside slaves. As a Khoikhoi woman, she could not formally be enslaved but lived in very similar conditions as slaves. In 1810, Saartjie Baartman, now in her early twenties, was persuaded to move travel to England after meeting English ship’s doctor, William Dunlop. With the lack of opportunity in South Africa, Saartjie decided to travel to England to make money and to seek a better life. But this decision would be the beginning of her sad story and would change Saartjie’s life forever.

Put On Display In England & Paris

Saartjie Baartman’s body was unlike anything anyone had seen in Europe. Her large buttocks left anyone — not from Africa — that saw her in awe. On her arrival in England, Saartjie was put on exhibition. This is because she was considered a freak because of her body. She was dubbed the Hottentot Venus, and her image made its way around England. The word ‘Hottentot’ was the name given to Khoi people by colonisers and is today seen as an offensive term. Even though many fought in England’s court to free Saartjie Baartman from her exhibitors, they were unsuccessful.  In 1814, Saartjie was moved to Paris by a man named Henry Taylor. She was sold to an animal trainer who put her on exhibition for 15 months at the Palais Royal. Saartjie has become a slave and was treated like an animal. To make thing worse, she also became the subject of scientific and medical research. The research done on Saartjie Baartman became the standard of what African females looked like.

Death

Almost two years later in December 1815, Saartjie Baartman died at the age of 26. The cause of her death was undetermined, but it is possible that she had smallpox, syphilis or pneumonia. After her death, Saartjie’s body was still used for research stripping it from all dignity. The Homme Museum in Paris took a death cast of her body, removed her skeleton and pickled her brain and other body parts in jars. All of these items were on display in the museum for 100 years till 1985.

Return To South Africa

After five years of negotiating with the French government, Saartjie Baartman’s remains where returned to South Africa. On 3 May 2002, an emotional ceremony attended by many Khoikhoi people was held to welcome Saartjie back to home. Her remains were buried in the Eastern Cape where she was born.

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