Sarah Baartman: the “Hottentot Venus”

From a servant to a freak show attraction, Sarah Baartman was considered a monkey in Europe. Even though the public paid to admire her body, she died in poverty.

Sarah Baartman, also known as Saartjie (little Sarah) Baartman, was born around 1789 in the vicinity of the Gamtoos River, located in present-day Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.

In Europe, she is exhibited as an exotic attraction. Her body, far from being unusual in South Africa for Khoikhoi women, is considered a sensation in England and France. Sarah Baartman has a slim figure at the waist and an enlarged buttocks and genitals. She is nicknamed the “Venus of Hottentot”, Hottentot being the European name of the people Khoikhoi and Venus, an allusion to the Roman goddess of love.

When she was sixteen, Sarah’s fiancé was murdered by Dutch settlers. Shortly after, she was sold into slavery to a merchant by the name of Pieter Willem Cezar, who took her to Cape Town where she became a servant to her brother.

On October 29, 1810, Sara allegedly “signed” a contract with an English surgeon, William Dunlop, who was also a friend of Cezar and his brother Hendrik. Apparently, the terms of her “contract” stipulated that she would travel with Hendrik Cezar and Dunlop to England and Ireland to work as a domestic worker and be exposed for entertainment purposes. She was to receive a “part of the income” from her exhibitions and be allowed to return to South Africa after five years.

Dunlop wanted Sara to come to London and become an oddity for the display. She was taken to London where she was exposed in a building in Piccadilly, a street full of quirks like “the ultimate in hideousness” and “the greatest distortion in the world”. Englishmen and women paid to see Sara’s half-naked body exposed in a cage about three and a half meters high. She has become an attraction for people from different parts of Europe.

After four years in London, in September 1814, she was transported from England to France and on arrival, Hendrik Cezar sold her to Reaux, a man who presented animals. He exhibited her around Paris and reaped financial benefits from the public’s fascination with Sarah’s body. He started to display her in a cage next to a baby rhino. Her “trainer” would order her to sit or stand in the same way that circus animals are ordered. 

She lived a humiliating life filled with abuse and racism, Sarah Baartman died in 1816 at the age of 26.