Her story has been recounted numerous times over many years, that of an African woman who endured suffering and exploitation due to a condition she had, known as steatopygia.
Sarah Baartman, originally named Saartje, possessed exceedingly prominent buttocks and hips as a result of steatopygia, a condition characterized by the accumulation of substantial fat in the buttocks.
Born into a Khoikhoi family in South Africa’s Eastern Cape in 1789, she hailed from a nomadic Khoikhoi community. Tragedy struck early in her life as her mother passed away when she was just two years old, and her father, a cattle driver, died during her adolescence.
As a teenager, Sarah entered into marriage with a fellow Khoikhoi from her tribe, only to witness his tragic murder by his slave master, a Dutch colonist. To survive, Sarah turned to domestic service in Cape Town, South Africa, but it was during this period that her tribulations began.
According to a feature in a BBC magazine, Sarah’s life took a fateful turn when she was discovered by a British surgeon named William Dunlop. This occurred after one of her employers, Hendrik Cesars, for whom she worked as a domestic worker, began exhibiting her at a city hospital in Cape Town, all in exchange for money.
Intrigued by her unique condition and physique, Dunlop made promises to take her abroad to work as an “indentured servant” and urged her to sign a contract to that effect. Despite her illiteracy, Baartman signed the contract, only realizing later that it had been intended for a different purpose.
She was subsequently dispatched to Europe, where she became a featured attraction in numerous British freak shows, particularly in London, at a venue located in Piccadilly Circus. There, she was given the stage name “Hottentot Venus,” a term that is now considered derogatory but was then used in Dutch to describe the Khoikhoi and San peoples, collectively known as the Khoisan.
The BBC magazine feature reveals that during her exhibitions, Sarah Baartman was dressed in skin-tight, flesh-colored attire, adorned with beads and feathers. She would smoke a pipe while performing on stage, singing and dancing. At times, affluent members of the audience would pay for private viewings in their homes, where guests were permitted to touch her.
It is reported that she was occasionally suspended in a cage on stage, subject to poking, prodding, and unwanted touching.
In 1807, after the British Empire had abolished the slave trade, campaigners who were appalled by Baartman’s mistreatment in London took legal action against her employers, accusing them of holding her against her will. Regrettably, when called to testify in court, she sided with her employers. This has since raised questions about whether she had been coerced into the exhibitions against her will or if she had faced threats of repercussions for testifying against her employers in court.
Following the campaigners’ unsuccessful lawsuit, Sarah went to Paris with Hendrik Cesars, where she was sold to an exhibitor named S. Réaux. During this period, she engaged in heavy drinking, smoking, and was allegedly subjected to prostitution.
She even consented to being studied and painted by certain scientists and artists, although she refused to appear completely nude before them, citing that it was beneath her dignity.
Baartman is believed to have passed away at the age of 26 due to an “inflammatory and eruptive disease,” which some sources speculate may have been a result of pneumonia, syphilis, or alcoholism. Her death occurred on December 29, 1815, yet her exhibition persisted.
According to the BBC, “The naturalist Georges Cuvier, who had danced with Baartman at one of Réaux’s gatherings, made a plaster cast of her body before conducting a dissection. He preserved her skeleton and preserved her brain and genitals, placing them in jars on display at Paris’s Museum of Man. These remains remained publicly exhibited until 1974, a fact described as ‘grotesque’ by some.”
Following Nelson Mandela’s election as South Africa’s president in 1994, he requested the repatriation of Baartman’s remains and the plaster cast created by Cuvier.
Following the French government’s approval, Baartman’s remains were returned to South Africa in March 2002. One hundred and ninety-two (192) years after leaving for Europe, her remains were interred in Hankey, Eastern Cape province, in August of the same year.