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.
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.
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.
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.