Saartjie's Homecoming

It must have been a exciting idea for Saartjie Bartman.

Born in 1789 into the Griqua tribe of South Africa's eastern Cape, the Khoisan woman was orphaned in an early raid and was later baptized Saartjie Baartman (her name means "little Sarah" in Afrikaans). She was working for a local farmer near Cape Town, South Africa when her unusual appearance Baartman[1] attracted the attention of a visiting ship's surgeon, William Dunlop. Saartjie's enlarged buttocks and oversized labia intrigued Dunlop and he suggested that he take her to England to be studied. Hendrick Cezar, brother of Saartjie's employer, saw an opportunity for fame and fortune and was able to overcame any resistance that she might have had to the idea of being put on display. Given her life of poverty, the prospect of escaping it and traveling abroad must have seemed impossible to resist. Dunlop and Cezar asked Lord Caledon, then-governor of the Cape, for permission to make the trip (to the governor's credit, he would later regret giving his permission). Saartjie had no idea when she left South Africa that she would never see her homeland again.

Arriving in England in 1810, Saartjie was examined by some of the leading anatomists of the time. Her unusual genital condition was formally termed the "Hottentot apron" (Hottentot being an archaic name for Khoisan). Seen by the public as nothing more than a sexual freak, she was placed on public display in Piccadilly and quickly dubbed the "Hottentot Venus". According to contemporary accounts, Saartjie was often "exhibited like a wild beast" (usually in a cage) and forced to parade almost naked before gawking audiences. Many spectators poked her with sticks to ensure that she was "all real" and she was often left in tears due to the pain and humiliation.

Complaints over the outrageous nature of Saartjie's exploitation led to a court hearing. After Saartjie testified in perfect Dutch that she was not being abused and would receive half of all the profits from her showings, the case was dismissed. The publicity of the trial and continuing controversy of her exhibition led to Sartjie being taken to France in 1814 where things worsened quickly (slavery was still legal there). Whatever Saartjie's handlers may have promised her, she ended up getting very little money for herself.

At some point, Dunlop and Cezar dropped out of the picture and Saartjie became the property of an animal handler named Reaux. Her showings in Paris were as popular as they had been in London and she was examined by many French anatomists, including Georges Cuvier. Numerous scientific papers were written about the "Hottentot Venus" that emphasized prevailing notions of racial superiority. Saartjie's "primitive anatomy" was contrasted with the "refined" European anatomy and reinforced the idea that Europeans were naturally more advanced. A comic opera was even written about her titled "The Hottentot Venus".

Despite her popularity, Saartjie's misery and humiliation caused her to sink into alcoholism. Returning home was out of the question due to the travel expenses involved. Because of her poverty, she eventually worked as a prostitute to support herself.  Saartjie's health deteriorated and she died on January 1, 1816 (probably of pneumonia) but the exploitation didn't end with her death. Her body was dissected by Georges Cuvier and a wax replica of her body was made. Saartjie's skeleton,brain and genitalia went on exhibit in Paris' Musee de l'Homme and remained there until 1974 when they were finally removed from public view.

Over the years, there were repeated pleas for the return to Saartjie's remains to South Africa but interest in the case intensified after Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article on her in 1985. Finally, following pressure from the South African government and debates in France's National Assembly, permission to return the remains was given in 2002. On May 6 of that year, Saartjie Baartman's remains were returned to South Africa and, in a moving ceremony, she was laid to rest on August 9 (National Women's Day in South Africa) in the Gamtoos River valley of the Eastern Cape.

In 1999, the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children was first opened in Capetown, South Africa as a multi-disciplinary centre for abused women and children. One of the high points of my IMG_0275 recent trip to South Africa was a visit to the Centre to talk to the staff and hear the story of one of the women who had overcome domestic abuse with the centre's help. In addition to providing a residential shelter for women and children, the centre supplies vocational and medical assistance for dealing with trauma, AIDS, substance abuse and sexual assault. They also have the only support program for transgendered people in all of Africa.

The centre was named for Saartjie Baartman to highlight her status as an icon to the Khoisan and also as a symbol for the abuse and exploitation that women often experience. It represents a fitting tribute to one of the most memorable victims of 19th century racism.

Click here to read more about the Saartjie Baartman Centre or to make a donation


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