Saartjie Baartman was considered a South African sexual freak by Caucasian culture. In 1810, when she was 20, she was convinced to leave her homeland for fame in England. Her traditional Khoikhoi body type was considered freakish in Western Culture and she was put on sexual display. Her bare breasts and genitals were open for the gaping. She was given the nickname “Hottentot Venus” for her presumptive beauty, though in Khoikhoi, “hottentot” means “stutterer.” Saartjie was dead at 25 and her genitals and brain were pickled for continued, public, display.
Saartjie Baartman was taken to Paris in 1814 and continued to be exhibited as a freak. She became the object of scientific and medical research that formed the bedrock of European ideas about black female sexuality. When she died in 1816, the Musee de l’Homme in Paris took a deathcast of her body, removed her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals in jars. These were displayed in the museum until as late as 1985.
After five years of negotiating with the French authorities for the return of Saartjie Baartman’s remains, the South African government, together with the Griqua National Council which represents the country’s 200 000 Griqua people, part of the Koi-San group, brought Saartjie Baartman back to South Africa. On Friday 3 May 2002, in a moving ceremony attended by many representatives of the Khoikhoi people, Saartjie Baartman was welcomed back to Cape Town. Her final resting place is in the Eastern Cape, where she was born.
Despite her tortured life, did Saartjie Baartman set the standard for feminine Black beauty in America?
Was she able to move beyond her physical appearance and into a grander suffering for her natural beauty apart from her forced role as a sideshow freak?
Saartjie Baartman was bound by her human aesthetic in life and then dissected by science in her death.
How can we ever reclaim our despicable past as The Human Race when there are so many forced cruelties and bludgeoned tragedies that we cannot begin to repair or heal?
The Saartjie Baartman Center for Women and Children in Cape Town, South Africa is trying to reclaim her good name and defame her unwanted infamy as a condemned idol — and as an original misbegotten — by tending to, and then sheltering, abused children and women.
Perhaps we can start to rectify the shame of our past by caring for the futures of those who are still abused like Saartjie Baartman.