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Saartjie (Sara) Baartman was one of the first Black women known to be subjugated to human sexual trafficking; even more perverse, her objectification was for all to see and judge.
Derisively named the “Hottentot Venus” by Europeans, her body would be publicly examined and exposed inhumanly throughout the duration of her young life and even after.
Baartman’s promoters nicknamed her the “Hottentot Venus”, with “hottentot” – now seen as derogatory – then being used in Dutch to describe the Khoikhoi and San, who together make up the peoples known as the Khoisan.
BBC reports she was brought to Europe seemingly on false pretenses by a British doctor and paraded around “freak shows” in London and Paris, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks.
In 2014, the cover of Paper magazine showed Kim Kardashian balancing a champagne glass on her protruding buttocks. Some critics complained the image was reminiscent of contemporary drawings of Baartman.
The Kardashian photo purposely referenced a 1976 image by the same photographer – Jean-Paul Goude – which showed black model Carolina Beaumont naked and in a similar pose.
TIME’s Jordyne Blaise writes, “Unlike Baartman, Kardashian West has been able to capitalize on the public’s fascination with her body and likeness both financially and socially—but when we consider that that fascination is rooted in the same (perhaps perverse) curiosity that turned Baartman from a human being into a museum display, it is not unfair to wonder just who is exploiting whom.”
Today, Sara “Saartjie” Baartman remains the human embodiment of colonial exploitation, hyper-sexualization and grotesque commodification of Black women.
“Black women have always been these vixens, these animalistic erotic women. Why can’t we just be the sexy American girl next door?”, Tyra Banks once said.
In fact, rumors began to swirl that Beyoncé was planning to write and star in a film about Baartman in 2016, but they were denied by the icon’s representatives.
Though Queen Bee’s team dismissed any involvement, they reportedly said: “This is an important story that should be told.”
Who was “Sara” Baartman?
Baartman was nearly 30 years old by the time she left for Europe in 1810 with a British Army surgeon named Alexander Dunlop.
As described by a 2010 biography of Baartman by Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Dunlop saw the attention that Baartman’s body attracted, so he worked to bring her to London shortly thereafter.
Once she arrived, Baartman’s nude body was exhibited to the public, sometimes she’d play instruments and performed dances native to her Khoikhoi tribe.
Eventually English audiences raised objections to the zoo-like nature of exhibiting Baartman, and Dunlop changed aspects of the show to make it more aesthetically appeasing.
Namely, Baartman’s body stocking, which gave the appearance of nudity, was scrapped and she wore a tribal costume instead.
She began wearing tribal skin-tight, flesh-coloured clothing, as well as beads and feathers, and smoked a pipe, but the change backfired for Dunlop: public interest waned and viewers complained.
Baartman would be made available for private showings in the homes of the wealthy where at extra cost, patrons would be allowed to poke and prod her.
A life of private hardship and public humiliation
It is thought Saartjie Baartman was born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape in 1789, her mother died when she was two and her father, a cattle driver, died when she was an adolescent.
She entered domestic service in Cape Town after a Dutch colonist murdered her partner, with whom she had had a baby who died.
Baartman was labeled with “steatopygia”, resulting in extremely protuberant buttocks due to a build-up of fat.
These made her a cause of fascination when she was exhibited at a venue in London’s Piccadilly Circus after her arrival. “You have to remember that, at the time, it was highly fashionable and desirable for women to have large bottoms, so lots of people envied what she had naturally, without having to accentuate her figure,” says Rachel Holmes, author of The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman.
Baartman died aged 26. The cause was described as “inflammatory and eruptive disease”. It’s since been suggested this was a result of pneumonia, syphilis or alcoholism.
The naturalist Georges Cuvier, who had reportedly once danced with Baartman, made a plaster cast of her body before dissecting it. He preserved her pickled organs in jars before they would be displayed at Paris’s Museum of Man.
Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in the Paris museum until 1974.
After his election in 1994 as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela requested the repatriation of Baartman’s remains and Cuvier’s plaster cast. The French government eventually agreed and repatriated her remains in March 2002.
In August of that year, her remains were buried in Hankey, in Eastern Cape province, 192 years after Baartman had left for Europe.
The Saartjie Baartman Centre protects exploited and trafficked victims
To combat ongoing human trafficking, in Cape Town, South Africa, The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children was opened in 1999 as the first multi-disciplinary service (one-stop) centre for abused women and children in the country.
Since its inception, the Centre has “evolved to be the prime learning site nationally for providing holistic, integrated services to survivors of violence. Some of the services provided are managed directly by the Saartjie Baartman Centre.”
These include a 24-hour crisis response; a residential shelter and transitional housing for abused women and their children; legal assistance; and job-skills training.