Can you imagine yourself being paraded around the city semi-naked? What about being showcased in a circus with all eyes on you?

The thought itself sounds like a nightmare. Well, Saartjie Baartman lived the nightmare literally, two hundred years ago.

This woman — born in South Africa — was left orphaned when her husband and father were killed. She was taken to Cape Town where she worked as a slave at Hendrick Caesar’s house. From here, she was smuggled to London by Alexander Dunlop, a British military doctor.

What was the reason behind smuggling Baartman and parading her semi-naked in front of the educated English crowd?

Saartjie’s large buttocks, her large breasts and her dark skin colour.

Saartjie Baartman
Illustrations of Baartman from llustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères
Picture Credits: Wikipedia

Baartman was displayed at London’s Piccadilly circus and became an overnight ‘celebrity’. She was made to wear skin-tight, flesh coloured clothes along with beads and feathers and smoked a pipe on the stage. At that time, England was fascinated by large bottoms and a black woman’s body in general, as they hadn’t seen a black woman’s body until then. She was nicknamed “Hottentot Venus”. She became famous overnight — people found her fascinating as she did not look anything like a Caucasian woman. She was exhibited more than 200 times in the capital.

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When people lost interest in Baartman’s show, she was toured around Ireland and Britain. Later, Baartman caught a Frenchman’s attention and moved to France with him in 1814. Saartjie Baartman was once again exhibited in front of an audience, but this time by a ‘predatory showman’ called Reaux. All this and more pushed Baartman towards becoming an alcoholic and it is also said that she was pushed to prostitution by Reaux, the two reasons attached to her death. She died on the 29th of December, 1815, in Paris, miles away from her homeland. But Baartman was not spared even in death.

aartjie Baartman
Saartjie Baartman’s Illustrations
Picture Credits: Paraisoweb

During her days in France, she became a subject of study for a scientist named Georges Cuvier. The scientist’s obsession with Baartman made him conduct a “hypersexual post-mortem dissection“. He made a plaster cast of her body before dissecting it. He placed her genitals and brain in jars which were displayed along with her skeleton at Paris’s Museum of Man.

Saartjie Baartman's remains displayed at a museum in Paris Picture Credits: Pinterest
Saartjie Baartman’s remains displayed at a museum in Paris
Picture Credits: Pinterest

The remains displayed at the museum were taken down in 1974 but weren’t returned until Nelson Mandela requested the repatriation of her remains and Cuvier’s plaster cast. In 2002, Saartjie Baartman’s remains were buried in her homeland.

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