The significance of Sarah Baartman

Two centuries ago Sarah Baartman died after years spent in European "freak shows". Sarah Baartman died on 29 December 1815, but her exhibition continued. Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren't repatriated and buried until 2002. Brought to Europe seemingly on false pretenses by a British doctor, stage‑named the "Hottentot Venus", she was paraded around "freak shows" in London and Paris, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks. Today she is seen by many as the epitome of colonial exploitation and racism, of the ridicule and commodification of black people.


Baartman's life was one of huge hardship. It is thought she 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.


In October 1810, although illiterate, Baartman allegedly signed a contract with English ship surgeon William Dunlop and mixed‑race entrepreneur Hendrik Cesars, in whose household she worked, saying she would travel to England to take part in shows.


The British Empire had abolished the slave trade in 1807, but not slavery itself. Even so, campaigners were appalled at Baartman's treatment in London. Her employers were prosecuted for holding Baartman against her will, but not convicted, with Baartman herself testifying in their favor


The naturalist Georges Cuvier, who had danced with Baartman at one of Reaux's parties, made a plaster cast of her body before dissecting it. He preserved her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals, placing them in jars displayed at Paris's Museum of Man. They remained on public display until 1974, something Holmes describes as “grotesque” .

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