Saartjie Baartman was born in 1789 into the Griqua tribe of the eastern Cape, a subgroup of the Khoisan people who are now thought to be the first aboriginal inhabitants of the southern tip of Africa. Her family moved to a shack near Cape Town and, while working as a 20-year-old servant to a local farmer, she attracted the attention of a visiting English ship’s surgeon, William Dunlop. What made her a curiosity in the doctor’s eyes were her extraordinary steatopygia — enlarged buttocks — and her unusually elongated labia, a genital peculiarity of some Khoisan women of the time.
She agreed to go with Dunlop to England where, he promised her, she would become rich and famous as a subject of medical and anthropological research. She was 21 when she left Cape Town for London. At first, she was indeed put under anatomical scrutiny by scientists, who named her genital condition the ‘Hottentot apron’. ‘Hottentot’ was a word coined by early Dutch settlers to South Africa to describe the strange clicking language of the Khoisan. But the only success she achieved was as an exhibit before the general public.
Contemporary descriptions of her shows at 225 Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket in London say Baartman was made to parade naked along a “stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered”. People paid one shilling to gawk at her, where she was depicted as a wild animal in a cage, dancing for her keeper. For several years, working-class Londoners crowded in to shout vulgarities at the protruding buttocks and large vulva of the unfortunate woman.
The aristocracy were no less fascinated at what they saw as a sexual freak, but they had private showings. Baartman was supposed to earn half of the proceeds from her performances, but in fact she saw little of the profits. In 1814, after spending four years being paraded around the streets of London, Baartman was taken to Paris and, according to the archival accounts, was handed to a “showman of wild animals” in a travelling circus. Her body was analysed by scientists, including Baron Cuvier, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s surgeons. A number of pseudo-scientific articles were written about her, testimony at the time to the superiority of the European races.
Her anatomy even inspired a comic opera in France. Called “The Hottentot Venus” or “Hatred to French Women”, the drama encapsulated the complex of racial prejudice and sexual fascination that occupied European perceptions of aboriginal people at the time. It appears Baartman worked as a prostitute in Paris and drank heavily to cope with the humiliation she was subjected to. Sad and homesick, she died a lonely alcoholic on January 1 1816, probably of pneumonia. But even then she was to suffer indignity. Less than 24 hours after her death she was carved up by Baron Cuvier. He had her body cast in wax, dissected and her skeleton articulated. Her genitalia and brain were pickled and displayed at the Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind). They were finally withdrawn from public view in 1974, and her remains were assigned to a storeroom and forgotten.
But some Africans never forgot Baartman. Nelson Mandela made a request to France in 1994 for her remains to be handed back. Her cause gained momentum amid post-apartheid South Africa’s new awareness of tribal identity. All over the country, aboriginal peoples are asserting their heritage rights, claiming not only political and cultural recognition, but also the restitution of ancestral land and the protection of intellectual property rights. The San, once known as the bushmen of southern Africa, have successfully reclaimed historic tribal land and won a share in the proceeds of internationally marketed drugs made from their traditional medicinal plants. And now Baartman’s Khoisan tribe, which has been recognized by the United Nations as an indigenous “First Nation,” has won a victory for tribal recognition by securing the return of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ to South Africa.
It took years of negotiations and wrangling before a law was voted in on March 6 2002 allowing for her return. French legal analysts said the text was carefully worded to prevent it from being used in other cases. French Research Minister Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg said: “France wants to restore the dignity of Saartje Baartman, who was humiliated as a woman and exploited as an African.” Ambassador Thuthukile Skweyiya stated:
|“Saartje Baartman is beginning her final journey home, to a free, democratic, non-sexist and non-racist South Africa. She’s a symbol of our national need to confront our past and restore dignity to all our people.”|
|“I’ve come to take you home –
home, remember the veld?
the lush green grass beneath the big oak trees
the air is cool there and the sun does not burn.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white
and the water in the stream chuckle sing-songs
as it hobbles along over little stones.
I have come to wrench you away –
I have come to soothe your heavy heart
I have come to take you home
Diana Ferrus, “A poem for Sarah Baartman”
Almost 200 years after she suffered indignity and hardship in Europe, a box containing Baartman’s remains, draped in a South African flag and flanked by six Khoisan children, was wheeled into Cape Town airport in May 2002.