Do you know the story of Sara Baartman?
That young South African girl who was displayed in Europe like an animal?
Captured or freely brought to Europe?
The versions differ, but they converge on one essential matter; the life of this woman has been a succession of gradual sufferings that made her the symbol of scientific racism.
Even in death, which is supposed to be the ultimate deliverance, her misery could not end.
Who was Sara Baartman? How did she get to Europe?
Sara Baartman was a young Khoi- san woman (a mixture of nomadic Khoikhoi herders and San hunters). She was born in 1789 in South Africa, where she spent her life in the service of her masters.
Although her life in South Africa was far from being quiet or peaceful, things took a dramatic turn when Alexander Dunlop, a friend of her employer, Hendrik Cesar, saw in her a potential that could be exploited in Europe and convinced the latter to take her with him to London.
At the time, the freak shows were a growing attraction in Europe, and Dunlop saw her as the ideal candidate.
In fact, the explorers had already spread, through their writings and stories, a fascination around the “extraordinary” physical attributes of the women of her tribe:
Developed buttock (steatopygia) and hypertrophy of the labia minora (elongated labia).
So much so, that they had gone from myth to obsession.
The two friends made her sign a contract, selling her a life of a star.
In 1810, when Sara boarded that boat for London, she had no idea that she would become the object of so many voyeuristic fascinations.
She didn’t know that her uniqueness would be scrutinized, analyzed, and dissected.
Saraatje didn’t know that the notoriety she was promised would be at her expense.
Sara Baartman, a “Venus Hottentot” in London
Once in London, she performed in various shows, in which she was presented as a circus freak.
She was not naked during her performances, but dressed in light and suggestive ways, leaving little room for the imagination. The advertising posters representing her highlighted her generous forms and her “hottentots” origins, the derogatory name given to the Khoi Khoi by the Dutch settlers. She was called “the Venus of the Hottentot” on stage to accentuate the mockery.
Sara’s performances were popular in England. Was she forced to perform? Was she paid under the terms of the contract? Difficult to say even if it is easy to doubt.
A small glimmer of hope arose when her working conditions were noticed by an African association, which sued her masters/impresarios for exploitation.
While we can be impressed by England’s avant-garde approach to human rights, given that this trial was held in 1810, it must be said that Sara was given two choices:
Either return to her home country and be a slave or stay in England to do her shows and be at the mercy of her managers.
She probably thought she was choosing the lesser of two evils.
On the stand, Sara admitted to consent. According to her, her conditions were fine except for the lack of warm clothes. Hence, she remained in Europe.
What if she wanted to stay in England and have a revisited contract? Or build a life as a free woman? Sadly she didn’t have these options.
Sara Baartman’s resistance against scientists
Her shows in England grew unpopular as time went by, so she found herself in France, where she fell into the nets of Reaux, an animal trainer. Once again, she was exhibited for her anatomy, again under even harsher conditions than in England.
To make matters worse, she crossed paths with scientists Georges Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, as they were in search of guinea pigs to support their racist theories.
For them, this woman “hottentot” was scientific manna, which they were eager to take advantage of. They were hoping to see this famous “hottentot apron”, the name given by Europeans to Khoi san women’s genitals, because of the lengthening of their labias.
When they thought they could have access to her body and use it as they pleased, Sara refused to give in to their unhealthy curiosity. She categorically refused their request to reveal her private parts.
They even tried to convince her by offering her money, but nothing worked; she remained firm on her decision which left them wanting more.
Sara’s remains stained with scientific racism at the hands of Georges Cuvier
Torn apart by her living conditions, an unfortunate cocktail of spirit, prostitution, abuse, and broken dreams, Sara’s star faded away in Paris in 1815.
For every human being, the journey to the afterlife means the end of suffering on earth, but for Sara, this was not the case.
Her death was a godsend for the scientist Cuvier, who now had the freedom to continue his research without having to undergo her protests.
After dissecting her body, the father of comparative anatomy wrote her a eulogy, which earned its rightful place in the records of scientific racism.
This report entitled « Extract of observations made on the body of a woman known in Paris and London as Venus Hottentot. » Although despicable as it was, it is only a reflection of that era.
Dehumanizing the other, even if it means using shortcuts, arbitrary and confusing classifications.
Contrary to what is read everywhere, Cuvier did not describe Sara as a missing link since he was not an evolutionist, but he did no better. He finds in her similarities with primates.
In his report, the reading of which has left me with a heavy heart, the young woman is described in a simian way. « Her movements had something sudden and erratic that were reminiscent of those of a monkey. »
Her physical features did not escape the subjective judgment of the scientist « The most repugnant thing about our Bushman was her physiognomy.. (…) I have never seen a human head more like apes than hers …. »
The scientific prosecutor, Cuvier, pronounces his sentences: « they were no exception to this cruel law which seems to have condemned these races with depressed and compressed skulls to a never ending inferiority. »
After a perilous exercise supported by craniometry, he took the opportunity to say that blacks could not be at the origin of Egyptian civilization (supreme blasphemy!) as the Scottish explorer James Bruce stated « What is already clear is that neither these Gallas nor these Bushmen, nor any race of Negroes, gave birth to the famous people who established civilization in ancient Egypt, and from which one can say that the whole world has inherited the principles of law, science, and perhaps even religion… »
Even if he recognizes her intelligence, she spoke three languages and had a good visual memory.
The renowned professor will remain faithful to the racist dogmas conveyed.
The danger is that these words from scientists were considered as gospel words and distilled in public opinion.
They were even taken up in later years by other researchers, brought up on scientific racism and written in textbooks.
This passage was not Sara’s last suffering. Her remains were exhibited as a war trophy at the Musée de l’homme in Paris. It was only in 2002, that she was finally returned to her native land.
Sara Baartman in the age of social media
Nowadays, steatopygia still fascinates; it is no longer the distinctive trait of the “bushmen” but extends to all regions and all cultures around the world.
It even generates income, so the less fortunate do not hesitate to resort to surgical interventions or miraculous creams.
Freak shows have moved from the real world to the virtual world.
In this world, it is difficult to distinguish the real from the fake, the free from the oppressed, as the illusion, as well as, the pretending is the norm.
If Sara Baartman had been on social media, we would have been there with our grave comments, shared her photos, participated in her public dissection, as we do today for many women, who believe they are free but who are, in fact, prisoners of their buttocks and the role we want them to play. A role they think they can capitalize on, but one that goes far beyond them.
What if we were cautious not to be accomplices of the Cuvier, Reaux, Dunlop and many others lurking in the shadows?
Rest in Peace Sara Baartman and may the world learn from the sufferings that were inflicted on you.