By Chris McGreal

In 1810, Saartjie Baartman was brought to Europe from South Africa to be displayed as a sexual freak and example of the inferiority of the black race. Now the remains of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ are finally being returned to her homeland. Chris McGreal reports

Thursday February 21, 2002
The Guardian

The first time Saartjie Baartman was dragged out to squat before the mob at 225 Piccadilly, the show’s promoters billed her genitals as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey’s throat. For several years, working-class Londoners crowded in to shout vulgarities at the protruding buttocks and large vulva of the unfortunate woman made famous across Europe as the “Hottentot Venus”. The aristocracy were no less fascinated at what they saw as a sexual freak, but they had private showings. Death in Paris a few years later treated the young woman from South Africa’s Eastern Cape little better than life. She was carved up by Napoleon’s surgeon, who made a cast of her body, pickled her genitals and brain, and put her skeleton on display in a museum.But now, nearly two centuries after Baartman was lured on to a ship for England with the promise that she would make her fortune, the Hottentot Venus is to go home. The French senate has voted to release Baartman’s remains from the Musé de L’Homme, where they were on public display until shame caught up with the administrators in 1976. The senate debate was an emotional affair, with the crucial question posed by the man who sponsored the bill, Nicolas About. “This young woman was treated as if she was something monstrous. But where in this affair is the true monstrosity?” he asked.It is a question to which the Khoisan – the first people to inhabit the southern tip of Africa – have a ready answer, and the return of Baartman’s remains is giving them the opportunity to make it heard. “Saartjie Baartman became a symbol of our suffering, and all the misery she went through was a manifestation of how the Khoisan people were treated during that period and beyond,” says Cecil le Fleur, chairman of the National Khoisan Consultative Conference Council. “But the sad thing is that although we knew of Saartjie Baartman when we were growing up, we didn’t really know what happened to her. We only found out a few years ago that her skeleton was in a museum in Paris. The French knew but we didn’t, her own people. They never thought to tell us.”Baartman was born in 1789 in what is now the Eastern Cape – the year of the French revolution, with its ideals of equality and liberty. She was from a clan of Quena people who were among those derided by white settlers as “Hottentots”. Today, the Quena fall under the collective label of Khoisan – grouping all the first peoples of southern Africa.In her late teens, Baartman migrated to Cape Town. Colonial records show that in 1810 she was living in a small shack when a British ship’s doctor, William Dunlop, took an interest in her. He was fascinated by her large backside and genitalia – common to Khoisan people. Dunlop persuaded her to sail with him to London by telling her that she would become rich by displaying her body. No doubt she saw the opportunity to live like the white colonialists in the Cape. Her fate was to be much worse even than that of the Elephant Man.

Baartman was first displayed in Piccadilly. A contemporary account describes how she was paraded on 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”. The crowd viewed her as little different from an animal. From Piccadilly she was moved to Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket.

Slavery was a hot topic of the time. A young Jamaican, Robert Wedderburn, who founded the African Association to campaign against racism, pressured the government to end the daily spectacle on the grounds that it amounted to slavery. The attorney general backed him, but the courts ruled that Baartman had entered into a contract of her own free will and the show went on. It is doubtful the Hottentot Venus ever saw a contract.

Four years after her arrival in London, she was moved to Paris – probably sold – where she fell under the control of a “showman of wild animals” at a travelling circus. When she was not being paraded for the mob, Baartman was displayed at society functions. It was at a ball for France’s new establishment – where she arrived dressed in nothing but a few feathers – that Napoleon’s surgeon general, George Cuvier, spotted her and claimed a scientific interest. Over the following year she was repeatedly studied by doctors and anthropologists, who invariably concluded that she was evidence of the superiority of the white race.

The abuse took its toll on her, driving her into prostitution and alcoholism. She died in 1815, just five years after arriving in Europe. It’s not certain what claimed her but the descriptions of her death point to syphilis and tuberculosis. Then Napoleon’s surgeon got hold of her again.

After her remains were pulled from public display at the Musé de L’Homme 26 years ago, they were consigned to a shelf in a back room and largely forgotten until interest in her fate revived with the end of apartheid in South Africa and the Khoisan peoples attempts to reassert their identity.

Le Fleur sees Baartman’s suffering as representative of the entire Khoisan people. “All through the colonial period and the decades of apartheid, our people were robbed of their lives and identity,” he says. “It was one of the master plans of the colonial powers to alienate us from our culture, language and traditions so they could rob us of our land. In the apartheid era they reclassified us as being merely a so-called coloured (mixed-race) person so we could not be distinguished from people with white or black blood.”

Yet Baartman’s return has a greater symbolism than acknowledging past atrocities. There is a sense among many of the estimated 100,000 or more people who claim Khoisan descent that even in the new, democratic South Africa, they are still marginalised. “The Khoisan definitely don’t feel that they are accommodated in the broader South African society as a people,” says Le Fleur. “According to the constitution, we enjoy the same individual rights, but as a group we are not yet recognised as a people. We are not recognised as the first indigenous peoples of South Africa.” But that is changing, and not just because of Baartman’s imminent return.

Many South Africans classified as “coloured” under apartheid feel that affirmative action for black people has once again left them behind, just as white “job reservation” and other apartheid measures did in the old days. To claim their place at the head of the queue, growing numbers of people in the Cape are identifying themselves as “Khoisan”.

Baartman nearly did not come back at all. Nelson Mandela took up the cause when he became president in 1994, pressing François Mitterand to release her remains. But the French were initially reluctant to open what they saw as a Pandora’s box that could lead to plundered artefacts from across the globe, and now filling museums, being returned. Besides which, there was an instinctive desire not to face up to Baartman’s inhumane treatment.

French bureaucrats looked for reasons to shelve the issue. According to the senate’s own report, officials at one point said that since South Africa had not raised the Baartman issue for a few months, there was no need to do anything. But the report brushed aside the doubts by describing the delays in returning her to South Africa as “grave management dysfunction” and “incompetence fighting with absurdity”.

But what of Baartman’s fate now? Who will claim her? Where will she be buried? Some want her interned in the Gamtoos Valley where she is believed to have been born. Others want a grander affair that evokes the national suffering of so many generations of all South Africans.

“That is the million-dollar question,” says Le Fleur. “Irrespective of the fact that she is Khoisan descent, we don’t want to create the impression that we claim her as Khoisan property. Mostly, we want her to have a decent burial and to treat her in death how she was never treated in life.”


By Lucille Davie

12 August 2002

Sarah Baartman, displayed as a freak because of her unusual physical features, has finally been laid to rest, 187 years after she left Cape Town for London. Her remains were buried on Women’s Day, 9 August 2002, in the area of her birth, the Gamtoos River Valley in the Eastern Cape.

Baartman was born in 1789. She was working as a slave in Cape Town when she was “discovered” by British ship’s doctor William Dunlop, who persuaded her to travel with him to England. We’ll never know what she had in mind when she stepped on board – of her own free will – a ship for London.

But it’s clear what Dunlop had in mind – to display her as a “freak”, a “scientific curiosity”, and make money from these shows, some of which he promised to give to her.

Baartman had unusually large buttocks and genitals, and in the early 1800s Europeans were arrogantly obsessed with their own superiority, and with proving that others, particularly blacks, were inferior and oversexed.

Baartman’s physical characteristics, not unusual for Khoisan women, although her features were larger than normal, were “evidence” of this prejudice, and she was treated like a freak exhibit in London.

The ‘Hottentot Venus’
She was called the “Hottentot Venus”, ‘Hottentot’ being a name given to people with cattle. They had acquired these cattle by migrating northwards to Angola and returned to South Africa with them, some 2 000 years before the first European settlement at the Cape in 1652. Prior to this, they were indistinguishable from the Bushmen or San, the first inhabitants of South Africa, who had been in the region for around 100 000 years as hunter-gatherers.

Khoisan is used to denote their relationship to the San people. The label Hottentot took on derogatory connotations, and is no longer used.

Venus is the Roman goddess of love, a cruel reference to Baartman being an object of admiration and adoration instead of the object of leering and abuse that she became.

She spent four years in London, then moved to Paris, where she continued her degrading round of shows and exhibitions. In Paris she attracted the attention of French scientists, in particular Georges Cuvier.

No one knows if Dunlop was true to his word and paid Baartman for her “services”, but if he did pay her, it wasn’t sufficient to buy herself out of the life she was living.

Once the Parisians got tired of the Baartman show, she was forced to turn to prostitution. She didn’t last the ravages of a foreign culture and climate, or the further abuse of her body. She died in 1815 at the age of 25.

The cause of death was given as “inflammatory and eruptive sickness”, possibly syphilis. Others suggest she was an alcoholic. Whatever the cause, she lived and died thousands of kilometres from home and family, in a hostile city, with no means of getting herself home again.

Cuvier made a plaster cast of her body, then removed her skeleton and, after removing her brain and genitals, pickled them and displayed them in bottles at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris.

Some 160 years later they were still on display, but were finally removed from public view in 1974. In 1994, then president Nelson Mandela suggested that her remains be brought home.

Other representations were made, but it took the French government eight years to pass a bill – apparently worded so as to prevent other countries from claiming the return of their stolen treasures – to allow their small piece of “scientific curiosity” to be returned to South Africa.

In January 2002, Sarah Baartman’s remains were finally returned, and remained in Cape Town pending a decision on her final burial place.

Marang Setshwaelo, writing for, says that Dr Willa Boezak, a Khoisan rights activist, believes that a poem written by Khoisan descendant Diana Ferrus in 1998 played a major role in helping bring Baartman home. Boezak says: “It took the power of a woman, through a simple, loving poem, to move hard politicians into action.”

Whatever the reason, Sarah Baartman is home, and has finally had her dignity restored by being buried where she belongs – far away from where her race and gender were so cruelly exploited.


A poem for Sarah Baartman
By Diana Ferrus“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 wretch you away –
away from the poking eyes
of the man-made monster
who lives in the dark
with his clutches of imperialism
who dissects your body bit by bit
who likens your soul to that of Satan
and declares himself the ultimate god!I have come to soothe your heavy heart
I offer my bosom to your weary soul
I will cover your face with the palms of my hands
I will run my lips over lines in your neck
I will feast my eyes on the beauty of you
and I will sing for you
for I have come to bring you peace.I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name.
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 –
I have come to take you home
where I will sing for you
for you have brought me peace.”Diana Ferrus
Diana Ferrus, of Khoisan descent, wrote “A poem for Sarah Baartman” while studying in Utrecht, Holland, in 1998. She told Marang Setshwaelo: “One evening I was looking at the stars and I thought to myself, ‘They’re so far away. But if I were home, I’d be able to touch every one of them.’ My heart just went out to Sarah, and I thought, ‘Oh, god, she died of heartbreak, she longed for her country. What did she feel?’ That’s why the first line of the poem was ‘I’ve come to take you home.’”Sarah or Saartjie?
For decades she has been referred to as “Saartjie”, a Afrikaans diminutive form of “Sara”. The diminutive form “tjie” is thought nowadays to be patronising, hence the renaming “Sarah”.

Are the floodgates now open?
Will the floodgates of the issue of returning artefacts and treasures to their countries of origin, be opened by the return of Sarah Baartman? Ethiopia is fighting for the return of the 1 700-year-old Aksum Obelisk, taken by the Italians in the early 20th century.

A film
Zola Maseko’s documentary, The life and times of Sara Baartman, has won half-a-dozen awards, including Best African Documentary. See also Gabeba Baderoon’s article The imagined Black body, published by the University of Cape Town’s African Gender Institute.

More Sarah Baartman links

















  • Sander L. Gilman  (1985). “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature”. In Gates, Henry (Ed.) Race, Writing and Difference 223-261. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • Stephen Jay Gould (1985). “The Hottentot Venus”. In The Flamingo’s Smile, 291-305. New York, W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-30375-6.
  • Rachel  Holmes  (2006). The Hottentot Venus. Bloomsbury, Random House. ISBN 0-7475-7776-5, ISBN 1400061369 (U. S. edition).
  • Z.S. Strother (1999). “Display of the Body Hottentot”, in Lindfors, B., (ed.), Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business. Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Press: 1-55
  • Janell Hobson  (2005).  “Venus In The Dark:  Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture”:


Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture  
Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture by Janell Hobson (Paperback – Jul 15, 2005)
Buy new:
5.0 out of 5 stars (1)


The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus  
African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus by Rachel Holmes (Hardcover – Jan 2, 2007)
3.9 out of 5 stars (8)
The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman (Born 1789 - Buried 2002)  
The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman (Born 1789 – Buried 2002) by Rachel Holmes (Hardcover – Mar 19, 2007)



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5 responses to “SARAH BAARTMAN


  2. Reblogged this on nomasons and commented:
    Need I say more?
    Read “Africans on Stage” by Bernth Lindfors or listen to the author’s interview on the COWS.

  3. Helena

    Thank you for this story on Sarah. May she rest in peace.

  4. candyfloss cleopatra

    please put in a timeline of Sarah Baartmans life I know many people who are trying to find one but just cant manage. my and I friends have a project on Sarah Baartman, a timeline would really help us!!! thanx for your time 😀

  5. Danny

    She suffered so much in life. Maybe now in death and her remains back to her land of birth, she can finally have peace.

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