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Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman (1789 – 29 December 1815) was the most famous of at least two Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as sideshow attractions in 19th century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus—"Hottentot" as the then-current name for the Khoi people, now considered an offensive term, and "Venus" in reference to the Roman goddess of love.



Saartjie Baartman was born to a Khoisan family in the vicinity of the Gamtoos River in what is now the Eastern Cape of South Africa. She was orphaned in a commando raid. Saartjie, pronounced "Sahr-key", is the Afrikaans form of her name; it translates to English as "Little Sarah", where the use of the diminutive form commonly indicates familiarity or endearment rather than a literally short stature. Her birth name is unknown.

Baartman was a slave of Dutch farmers near Cape Townmarker when Hendrick Cezar, the brother of her slave owner, suggested that she travel to England for exhibition, promising her that she would become wealthy. Lord Caledon, governor of the Cape, gave permission for the trip, but later regretted it after he fully learned its purpose. She left for London in 1810.

Great Britain

Baartman was exhibited around Britain, being forced to entertain people by gyrating her nude buttocks and showing to Europeans what were thought of as highly unusual bodily features. Due to her steatopygia, she had large buttocks and the elongated labia of some Khoisan women. To quote paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, "The labia minora, or inner lips, of the ordinary female genitalia are greatly enlarged in Khoi-San women, and may hang down three or four inches below the vulva when women stand, thus giving the impression of a separate and enveloping curtain of skin". Baartman never allowed this trait to be exhibited while she was alive.

Her exhibition in London, scant years after the passing of the Slave Trade Act 1807, created a scandal. An abolitionist benevolent society called the African Association, the equivalent of a charity or pressure group, petitioned for her release. Baartman was questioned before a court in Dutch, in which she was fluent, and stated that she was not under restraint and understood perfectly that she was guaranteed half of the profits. The conditions under which she made these statements are suspect, because it directly contradicts accounts of her exhibitions made by Zachary Macaulay of the African Institution and other eyewitnesses.


Baartman was sold to a Frenchman, who took her to France. An animal trainer, Regu, exhibited her under more pressured conditions for fifteen months. French naturalists, among them Georges Cuvier, visited her and she was the subject of several scientific paintings at the Jardin du Roimarker, where she was examined in March 1815: as Saint-Hilaire and Frédéric Cuvier, a younger brother of Georges, reported, "she was obliging enough to undress and to allow herself to be painted in the nude." Once her novelty had worn off on Parisians, she began to drink heavily and support herself with prostitution.

Death and legacy

She died on 29 December 1815, aged 26, of an inflammatory ailment, possibly smallpox, while other sources suggest she contracted syphilis, or pneumonia. An autopsy was conducted, and published by French anatomist Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville in 1816 and republished by French naturalist Georges Cuvier in the Memoires du Museum d'Histoire Naturelle in 1817. Cuvier notes in his monograph that Baartman was an intelligent woman who had an excellent memory and spoke Dutch fluently. Her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were placed on display in Paris' Musée de l'Hommemarker until 1974, when they were removed from public view and stored out of sight; a molded casting was still shown for the following two years.

There were sporadic calls for the return of her remains, beginning in the 1940s, but the case became prominent only after Stephen Jay Gould wrote The Hottentot Venus in the 1980s. After the victory of the African National Congress in the South African general election, 1994, President Nelson Mandela formally requested that France return the remains. After much legal wrangling and debates in the French National Assembly, France acceded to the request on 6 March 2002. Her remains were repatriated to her homeland, the Gamtoos Valley, on 6 May 2002 and she was finally laid to rest on 9 August 2002 on Vergaderingskop, a hill in the town of Hankeymarker over 200 years after her birth.

Baartman became an icon in South Africa as representative of many aspects of the nation's history. The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, a refuge for survivors of domestic violence, opened in Cape Town in 1999. South Africa's first offshore environmental protection vessel is also named after her.

Cultural references

  • Poet M.K. Asante, Jr. wrote "Ghetto Booty: The Hottentot Remix" for Saartjie Baartman in his 2005 book Beautiful. And Ugly Too. The poem tells Baartman's story and warns the hip hop generation not to repeat racist cycles of black female exploitation.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell allusively referred to her in "Hornpipe", a poem in the satirical collection "Facade".
  • Diana Ferrus, a South African poet of Khoisan descent, wrote "A Poem for Sarah Baartman" while studying in Europe. It includes the desire "to wrench [her] away-/ away from the poking eyes... ."
  • Poet Elizabeth Alexander explores her story in a 1987 poem and 1990 book, both entitled The Venus Hottentot.
  • The science fiction author Paul Di Filippo used her story as the basis for the second novel of his Steampunk Trilogy.
  • Barbara Chase-Riboud wrote a fictional biography entitled Hottentot Venus.
  • Her life features in the 2007 Afrikaans romantic novel Frats by Chris Karsten.
  • Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks fictionalizes her story in Venus. Playwright Lydia R. Diamond's play "Voyeurs de Venus" also examines her story through the guise of 20th century author.
  • In 2006, a feminist artist and filmmaker adopted the name Venus Hottentot to direct an independent film with erotic content called Afrodite Superstar with the intention of reclaiming the strength and voice of Sarah Baartman as a sexually-exploited woman of color.
  • Canadian performance artist Mara Verna created a web-based project and travelling exhibition cataloguing her story.
  • Novelist Joyce Carol Oates uses the image and the story of the Hottentot Venus in her 2006 novel Black Girl/White Girl.
  • The Saartjie Project is a collection of artists and activists using theatrical productions including song, dance, visual arts, spoken word and drama to explore the continued fascination with the black female form; to create dialogue; and to promote healing across communities.

See also



  1. Venus abused | Salon Books
  2. Sara Story
  3. Gould, 1985
  4. (Strother 1999)
  5. In The Blood by Steve Jones has it that "Saartje's hands are covered by the marks of the smallpox that killed her" (p. 204).
  6. Hal Morgan and Kerry Tucker. Rumor! Fairfield, Pennsylvania: Penguin Books, 1984, p. 29.
  7. The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Woman and Children
  8. Walton: 'Hornpipe' from Facade
  9. Hottentot Venus
  10. The Saartjie Project


  • Crais, Clifton and Pamela Scully (2008). Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. Princeton, Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-13580-9
  • Fausto- Sterling, Anne (1995). "Gender, Race, and Nation: The Comparative Anatomy of 'Hottentot' Women in Europe, 1815-1817". In Terry, Jennifer and Jacqueline Urla (Ed.) "Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture", 19-48. Bloomington, Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-32898-5.
  • Gilman, Sander L. (1985). "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature". In Gates, Henry (Ed.) Race, Writing and Difference 223-261. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay (1985). "The Hottentot Venus". In The Flamingo's Smile, 291-305. New York, W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-30375-6.
  • Strother, Z.S. (1999). "Display of the Body Hottentot", in Lindfors, B., (ed.), Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business. Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Press: 1-55.
  • Qureshi, Sadiah (2004), 'Displaying Sara Baartman, the 'Hottentot Venus', History of Science 42:233-257. [40284].

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