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Khoisan rock art |© Matthew philogene / Flickr
Khoisan rock art |© Matthew philogene / Flickr
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11 Things You Didn't Know About the Fascinating Life of Sarah Baartman

Picture of Gill Lange
Updated: 13 November 2017
The remains of Sarah Baartman are buried in a modest grave in the tiny farming village of Hankey in the Eastern Cape. Austere, brown stones mark the site, and a plaque somberly highlights the hardship and exploitation of her short life. Although she died in 1815 she was only buried in her current resting place in 2002, and her grave has been declared a South African National Heritage Site. But who was Sarah Baartman and how did life take her from a rural Khoisan village to becoming the “Hottentot Venus” of London and Paris? Here are 11 little-known facts of the life of Sarah Baartman.

How she got the name Sarah

Sarah Baartman, or Saartjie, as she was often referred to, was named Ssehura at birth by her Khoisan parents. Although her exact date is birth is not known, it is estimated to be around 1789. She belonged to the cattle-herding Gonaquasub group who resided in the Gamtoos Valley in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. She was re-named Saartjie, a diminutive form of Sarah in Dutch, when she was sold into slavery to a trader named Pieter Willem Cezar.

Traditional Khoisan family
Traditional Khoisan family | © Aino Tuominen/Pixabay

Her early years

Sarah grew up on a colonial farm near Hankey where it is believed she worked as a servant after losing both her parents during her adolescent years. Around the time Sarah was 16 years old, Dutch colonialists seeking to expand their empire came into conflict with the indigenous Khoisan people in the Eastern Cape, and many were absorbed into the Dutch labor system. Sarah became the “property” of Cezar, who set the future tragic timeline of her life. Initially, she was shipped off to Cape Town as a servant but things were soon to change.

The making of Hottentot Venus

At the time Sarah arrived in Cape Town, indigenous African women were considered abnormal, inferior, and paradoxically, exotically desirable to many white Europeans. Sarah, with her honey brown skin and other exotic features that included her characteristic Khoisan large and protruding buttocks, soon found herself the focus of curious attention. Her distinctly non-European look with whispers of sexual intrigue caught the eye of surgeon William Dunlop who made a deal with Cezar to take over “ownership” of Sarah.

Hottentot Venus poster
Hottentot Venus poster | © Wikimedia

The freak show

Dunlop put Sarah on display in London as a primitive and extraordinary phenomenon of nature, exhibiting her half naked body to anyone who was willing to pay the one shilling admittance fee. For a higher price, the more affluent in society could touch her. Her large buttocks, in particular, were a point of interest. London fashion at the time emphasized women’s derrieres with extravagant bows and frilly bustles and Sarah’s buttocks where grotesquely inspected and secretly craved.

European fashion turn of the 18th Century
European fashion turn of the 18th Century | © CharmaineZoe's Marvelous Melange Follo/Flickr

Although it has been said that a contract of agreement was signed between Sarah and Dunlop, this is highly unlikely as Sarah would not have been able to read or write. However, her contract allegedly stated that she would work as a domestic servant and be exhibited for entertainment purposes. For this inhuman employment, she would receive a portion of the entertainment earnings and be allowed to return to South Africa after five years.

Curiosity turns to perversity

Sarah never did make it home alive and after being put on display as a half-clothed oddity in London she was taken to France and sold to an animal handler. Here her exploitation and degradation intensified as she was led around and given instruction like an animal, while her female organs were studied as an object of macabre interest and sexual peculiarity. It is also believed that during this time she fell, or was forced, into prostitution and became a heavy drinker.

Depiction of Sarah