THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SARA BAARTMAN
Written by faithmueni on March 24, 2022
Sara Baartman also known as Sartee was born in SouthAfrica where she originated from the Khoikhoi people who were nomads. They wandered insearch of green pastures for their livestock and lived in caves where they recorded their lives and history.
By 1790, the tranquility of this place had long been shattered by the brutal arrival of the Europeans. During this time Sara was born. Her people, the Khoikhoi, were engaged in the Guerilla war against the encroaching dutch. This meant that the men lived in mountains ever watchful over the fear of the dutch.
The women,children and the old were left in the villages to feed themselves. Generally, Sarah was born and grew up in a war zone.
Professor Emeritus, of Anatomy and human biology said that
“The commandos of Cape town were stealing our cattle, and people were shot during hunting. One fateful day, they surrounded the village during the night, loaded themselves with firearms and surrounded the village and by that time, the men weren’t in the village. Thousands were killed and only a few managed to escape. Probably this is how the young Sarah found herself in Cape Town!
A french historian said that there is no much details of Sara’s status,
“We knew she came to work as a servant in Cape Town which was something that was quit common during that time when the Khoikhoi community disintegrated because individuals had no other choice than to work for white farmers as servants. So thats probably how Sara came to Cape town.
Sara worked as a servant until 1810. When her dutch farmer received two visitors. His brother and he were accompanied by a British surgeon. For the past two centuries, the Europeans were quite interested in the Khoikhoi, especially the women. This explained their immediate interest with Sara!
The Khoikhoi were particularly interesting to Europeans because they had special features of the women genital anatomy, especially the Khoikhoi ladies. There had long been rumors in Europe that there were some very special and interesting features about their genital anatomy.
There was even a feeling that they didn’t belong to the human species. The two visitors were really convinced if Sara could accompany them to Europe they would really gain a lot of fortune. His brother gave her the same way you could give out one of your slaves.
“Take her and do whatever you will.” It’s hard to say that she left Cape Town a free woman or to become rich and famous in Europe, I think the truth is more complex than it reflects.
“The colonial reality of Cape in the early 19th century, what probably happened, is that her two impressors took advantage of their gamble nature and made her sign a contract promising her fame and wealth and after she could return to cape.”
“Why did it work? Because of the economic condition of the Khoikhoi in the 19th century, just like other slaves, Sara saw this would be an economic emancipation for her as a way out of the current economy serville condition.” A Historian said in an interview.
On 20th March 1810, Sara and her two visitors boarded a ship bound for England. The journey lasted 3 months. What was for certain is that the young woman will never see her mother land again!
Sara Baatman arrived in London in June 1810, slave trade had been abolished in England. What was in her suitors minds was to profit from their rare specimen. They approached the arts keeper, Henrique Shazaar in the natural history museum and gave him a deal to sell him Sara and a giraffe skin; he bought the skin and refused to buy Sara.
People in London saw her as a freak because she was different from the British women, because she had larger buttocks than one would find in British women. Freak shows were actively popular those times; they had the biggest attraction, any species that looked different were taken to the king and exhibited in return for money.
E.g dwarfs, sapient pigs/horses, fleas that could fight, pigs that could rest as a human to name a few.
Henrique Shazaar Published an advertisement;
‘Just arrived from the interiors of south africa, with the most incorrect and perfect phenomena of people. From this extraordinary type of nature, the people will be allowed to judge on how far she exceeds.’
Her show was an immediate success! Large crowds would gather everyday from 1pm- 5pm to view her and some rich people would poke her buttocks with a stick to prove whether they were real.
A sketch of her, shows that she stood topless, but always hesitated on showing her private parts and preferred to put on her traditional cover. She looked noble, elegant, and Scottish soldiers stood beside her exhibiting her body.
The songwriters and cartoonists of those days depicted Sara’s show; as the most comical and hilarious in London. But this was not the case! A journalist who expressed shock! After he witnessed behind the scenes of the show explained that she was always in a cage; more like a prisoner than a human being.
Also, when she happened to hesitate to come out of the cage the keeper went behind and held his hand to her in a menacing posture and then she would obediently come out.
There were moments when she was extremely ill, but the man insisted that she should dance during the exhibitions! The poor creature could be seen pleading in tears, she panted on her throat and went down to her knees expressing pain.
Henrique denied the critics saying that it was a voluntary act, and that she received her shares after every show and anyone who could understand her language would clearly know that she is being treated with utmost humanity, kindness and tenderness!
The African institution existed then to fight for rights of the freed slaves. On sat, 24th November 1810, three leading members brought Sara’s case before the court of the King’s bench to ascertain whether the woman was in a state of coercion or not.
The court interviewed her for three hours in dutch. The transcript for the interview said that Sarah is currently happy with her situation and that she agreed to come to Europe for 6years and wishes to stay until her contract is over.
This was highly unlikely that it was her answers such as stating her happiness and contentment; instead Henrique seemed to have participated in those remarks but then the court made their decision in regards to those transcripts and declared the case closed!
Sarah and Henrique disappeared to Manchester and got baptized and reappeared again in 1814. Now, Sarah was 24years old and she was at her best when being exhibited in restaurants, latest fashions, gambling palaces.
Hendrix Cezar sold Sara to an animal trainer known as the founder of Comparative Anatomy and disappeared from her life forever! In Paris she was bought and sold by different owners. She would be booked in private homes, salons, and most of her suitors took her as a sexual object.
Gender reactions appeared where women wondered why she was such an attraction to the dutch men; and ironically went to extremes of physically transforming themselves to look like Sara so that they could be married.
Many Scientists in France were intrigued by Sarah wanting to study her, she lived under poor conditions and was sexually abused. Her death was so unfortunate and records say that she died on 29th, Dec 1815 at the young age of 26!
The cause of her death remains a debate, some say, an inflammatory disease derived from smallpox caused her death while others say she could have died from syphilis, alcoholism or pneumonia.
At the time of her death, Sara could speak dutch fluently and french. Her remains were kept in the french museum until 1934. Thanks to years of campaigning by Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa.
Her remains were finally returned to her native country; she was buried on 9th August 2002, which marks Women International Day in South Africa.