Who is Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus?

Big booties have not always been the in trend for women and their bodies. Today, women are paying thousands of dollars to have their rear ends be an outstanding asset on them. There are also many women who have become permanently scarred or have lost their lives trying to achieve big booty status.

From singer K. Michelle and rapper Lil’ Kim to rappers Nicki Minaj, Cardi B and many other countless women, big asses are now the norm regardless of what the ultimate outcome may be. However, this wasn’t always the case where a woman can have a big butt and society easily accepts it. Sarah Baartman, whose body was all natural had many strikes against her. The size of her butt was what kept her in the dark eye of the public.

From the beginning, Sarah, whose birth name was Ssehura, had a difficult life. It is believed she was born in 1789 in the village of the cattle-herding Gonaquasub group of the Khoikhoi people. This was in the vicinity of the Camdeboo of what is now known as the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

  • Her mother died by the time she was two-years old
  • By the time she was an adolescence her father who was a cattle driver was killed by Bushmen while working.
  • Married to a Khoikhoi (Khoi Khoi) drummer, she and her husband had a child who died shortly after birth.
  • By the age of sixteen, her new fiancé was killed by Dutch colonists who were trying to expand their empire and had begun to war with the Khoisan people. Many of the Khoi Khoi people were forced into the Dutch labor system.
  • Shortly after the death of her fiancé, she was sold to Pieter Willem Cezar where she became a domestic servant to Pieter’s brother in Cape Town.

With her arrival in Cape Town, she immediately became the center of attention. With her dark skin and her “exotic” features, she was considered abnormal and inferior yet she was desirable to many white Europeans. She had what is known as steatopygia, which is an extreme accumulation of fat on and around the buttocks. Her physical features and what made her sexually attractive to some is what caught the eye of William Dunlop, an eye surgeon who made a deal with Pieter to take ownership of her.

Even though Sarah was illiterate, she supposedly “signed” a contract with William on October 29, 1810 where she was promised a better life. Not only was she illiterate, she came from a culture where no written records were kept and stored so that is what made it unusual for her to “sign” anything, including a contract or document of any kind. Rumor had it that her new owners and their family was suffering from financial issues and Sarah was their way out of their money woes. She would travel with William and Pieter’s brother, Hendrik Cezar to England and Ireland, where she would work as a domestic servant and be on exhibit for entertainment purposes. Due to this “agreement” it is said, Sarah Baartman is the first known black female victim of trafficking.

Part of the “agreement” was that she would receive a portion of what she earned through the exhibitions and after five years, she would be allowed to return to South Africa. With this new venture she became known as the Hottentot Venus or Hottentot. This was a nickname given to women who were paraded around and exhibited in shows in England and France that were sexually suggestive and had an ethnic curious theme. This was a derogatory name especially for the Khoi Khoi people. They were seen as the missing link between human and ape.

Sarah was intelligent. She was compared to an orangutan, a monkey and was said to have ape-like qualities by French naturalist, Georges Cuvier. However, she had an excellent memory for faces and she fluently spoke French, Dutch, and English along with her own native language.

When Sarah arrived in London, she was exhibited at 225 Piccadilly which even today, that street holds historical importance about it. Sarah was displayed like an animal on stage, half naked and sometimes wearing flesh-colored, skin tight outfits. Other times she was in feathers and beads as she was forced to show off her large bottom. Along with her oversized bottom, her genitals were said to resemble skin that hangs from the throat of a turkey. Those patrons who were wealthy enough were able to pay for parties with her in the privacy of their homes where their guests were allowed to pinch, prod, poke, ridicule and spit at her.

After a court hearing regarding the “contract” she supposedly signed, Sarah was passed on to an animal exhibitor and trainer who went by the name Reaux. He showcased her at the Palais-Royal in Paris where he displayed her on a two feet high stage in a cage alongside a baby rhinoceros. He treated her like a modern day animal circus act where he would order her to stand and sit in a particular way. Barely covered, she always wore a small tan loincloth that covered her bottom front area. She insistent that she remained covered and she never appeared fully naked because she said her vaginal area was considered culturally sacred and displaying it publicly was beneath her. She considered that undignified. Rumor had it that she became a heavy smoker and drinker to cope with her dehumanizing and humiliating circumstance.

Georges Cuvier, a French naturalist and zoologist and also the founder and professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History, asked Reaux if he could use Sarah as a study for science. She was going to be his evidence for the missing link between humans and animals. In March of 1815 Sarah was studied by French anatomists, zoologists and physiologists. Again she refused to be completely naked during the experiment in order to keep her dignity.

At the age of twenty-six in December of 1816, eighteen months after her move to Paris, Sarah died. Her death, like her entire life, was complicated. The cause of her death was stated as inflammatory and eruptive disease. It is said her death is related to either syphilis, pneumonia or alcoholism. Sarah would never be at peace, even in death. Georges did not perform an autopsy on her body, he made a plaster of her body before dissecting it. During the dissection, he removed her skeleton and preserved it. Her brain and her genitals were placed in laboratory bottles and pickled for display for more than a century and a half at the Mussee de l’Homme (Museum of Man) museum in Paris. They remained on display until 1974.

After Africa’s first free democratic election, President Nelson Mandela requested the remains of Sarah Baartman be returned to her homeland from the museum that still held onto them. It took the French eight years to agree. There was legal debates argued about her return. On March 6, 2002, France agreed to the request and Sarah’s remains were returned two months later to her birth area, the Gamtoos River Valley in Eastern Cape. She was buried on Women’s Day, August 9, 2002 where thousands attended her funeral. It is said it was not just a celebration locally, but a global celebration.

Erotic Blessings,

Karma Eve

4 thoughts on “Who is Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus?”

    1. She was treated so badly I can’t even begin to image how she felt. She probably had so many questions like why her and where could she go to be free. It’s way too much to think of on any level what she faced.

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  1. I believe it was Bell Biv and Defoe who said “Never trust a big butt and a smile…..”

    Seriously though, I remember reading a detailed story about this woman a decade or so ago. Yet another example of how we’ve been treated like animals, while people that don’t look like us glare at us like animals in a zoo.

    There’s a special place in hell for those that treat us like this. All you’ve gotta do to see “asses” like this is to sign into the Internet. So many women are still trading on that almighty booty. Though if I’m being honest, I have to admit that I have nothing but love for it.

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    1. Our history is filled with pain and I’m sure we will never find out the truth of all things that happened with our people. I’m just happy to be able to tell a small piece.

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