Sara Baartman: The Beginnings of Sexual Exploitation of Black Women
Sara “Saartjie” Baartman 1790 – 29th December 1815 a Khoikhoi woman brought to 19th century Europe to be exhibited as a freak show attraction because of her curvacious black female body form. She was then called Hottentot Venus, Hottentot being the then name of the Khoi people and Venus in association with the Greek goddess of love. The first recorded sexual exploitation of a black woman by Europeans, sadly that exploitation continues today though no longer by force but instead at our own doing. Learning about Sara Baartman will make black women realise that our bodies are a temple and not to be used as a circus show.
Sara Baartman was born on the Eastern Cape of South Africa and lived the early part of her life as a slave to a Dutch farmer in Cape Town. When Sara received the offer to go to England it was sold to her by William Dunlop on a promise of wealth but little did she know that her life would become much worse and that she was being lead to an early death.
When arriving in Britain she became a exhibited of entertainment to Europeans who found her body form to be unusual. Sara Baartman as did most Khoi-San women had large buttocks, large breast and a elongated labia (the inner lips of the virgina), though her labia was never on display it was a point of great intrigue to Europeans. Given that her arrival was after the Slave Trade Act of 1807, the African Association in Britain petitioned for her release but when present in court Sara Baartman gave statement that she knew what she was doing and expected to receive half of the profits. It was suspected that she was coerced to make such a statement as it was contradictory to the Zachary Macaulay exhibition.
Sara Baartman was soon after sold to a Frenchman who saw it fit to make her undress for “scientific paintings”, exhibit her body and exposed her to experimentation. Once the novelty wore off, she was left aside and turned to prostitution to support herself and alcoholism.
In 1815 Sara Baartman died at the age of 25, five years after arriving in Europe, from three possible causes, pneumonia, smallpox or syphilis but there was also suspicion that domestic violence and alcoholism was the real cause. Even after death she was not allowed any dignity as her body parts (skeleton, brain and genitals) where placed on display in Musée de l’Homme in Paris. It was not until 2002, after long and strenuous legal appeals that the African National Congress succeeded to have her body return home to be buried.
Sara Baartman was tricked into leaving her homeland and isolated in a new land where she was treated like an animal, freak show, sex tool and not given even the minimum respect that all human being deserve. The Europeans labelled the people of Africa savages, wild, uncivilized and barbaric, yet the treatment that was extended to Sara Baartman was nothing less than inhumane. Would a white women ever have been displayed in such a degrading and savage manner? The exploitation of Sara Baartman is an example of the socially accepted racial discrimination of 19th century Europe. Europeans did not care for the human rights of a black woman as were not even considered as humans.
Sara Baartman has become an icon not only to her own Khoikhoi people but for women that experience oppression and discrimination in their lives. We should remember her not only for the traumatic experience of her past but as a demonstration of the care that we should take as black women not to fall victim to sexual exploitations.