Sarah Baartman: The Story

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By Elizabeth Sitotombe 

FREEDOM is the power or right to act, speak or  think as one wants. 

The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved, of not being subject to or affected by (something undesirable). 

Colonialism is the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial control over another country; occupying it with settlers and exploiting it economically.

With freedom comes dignity, respect and self-worth. It provides one with the power of choice and consensus. 

The same cannot be said for an individual living in a colonised environment; one open to abuse of any form, physical or emotional.

The absence of freedom and the presence of colonialism is a conducive environment for enslavement.

Such was the case of the African from the 17th Century when the whites set foot on the African continent. Freedom was taken away while the people were subjected to slavery. 

One such individual, who experienced the worst of white domination of black people, was Sarah Baartman. Though history has documented her life on several occasions many, however, do not know about her.

Born in 1789 and named Ssehura at birth by her Khoisan parents, her exact date of birth is not really known. 

She belonged to the cattle herding group resident in the Gamtoos Valley of Eastern Cape, South Africa. Upon ‘purchase’ by a slave trader named Pieter William Cezar, she was renamed Saartjie, a Dutch name for Sarah.

Hers became an endless tale of abuse in all its multiple forms.

By virtue of being  ‘purchased’, all her rights and freedoms were stripped off.

Sarah Baartman was shipped off to London where she became a public spectacle because of her ‘well-endowed’ body.

Khoisan women are ‘gifted’ with an ample behind, something which came as a marvel to a lot of whitemen.

William Dunlop put Sarah, whom he nicknamed  ‘Hottentot Venus’, on display in London to exhibit what the whites termed as a primitive and extraordinary phenomenon of nature exhibiting her half-naked body for a fee and for a higher fee for the elite to touch her.

This depicts a scenario where all elements of humanism were stripped off a person and subjected to treatment no less than that of an animal.

From a free and dignified woman in Africa, to an object of entertainment and ridicule in a foreign land, all thanks to the act of enslavement.

It is interesting to note that some believe that there was a contractual agreement between Sarah and Dunlop; that Sarah agreed to work as a domestic servant and also benefit from proceeds of the entertainment she gave on the side.

This is subject to debate as it is highly unlikely that Sarah could read or write, leaving one plausible explanation — she was coerced. After her stint in London, Sarah is said to have been sold off to an animal handler in Paris. 

The story of Sarah is one of the many untold stories of how Africans, particularly women, were stripped of their dignity and freedom.

Her story gives an account of how colonialism and enslavement was brutal to the African woman.

Just because the African way of civilisation was different from the Western one does not mean Africans were barbaric. 

Africa followed her own cultural norms and values guided by her beliefs and societal principles.

Sarah made it back home, though not as a living being. She died at age 26 in France from an inflammatory disease that was thought to be related to syphilis and alcoholism.

Sadly, even in death she was still a slave who continued to suffer humiliation.

Her body was dissected, her brains and genitalia pickled and placed in jars on display at a museum in Paris.

Her remains stayed there until 1974 as ‘proof ‘ of ‘racial evolution’. 

It is believed that her organs, genitalia and buttocks were used as evidence of her “…sexual primitivism and intellectual equality with that of an Orangutan.”

History in the Western world will always remember Sarah as a primitive sexual object that brought amusement to many callous whitemen.

But for Africa, Sarah will always be an African child robbed off her freedom and dignity as well as subjected to humiliation and ridicule at the hands of the whiteman.

Such history will never be recognised, let alone get an apology from the enforcers of slavery.

Sarah is the epitome of colonial exploitation, racism and commodification of black people.

Natasha Gordon-Chipembere wrote: “She has become the landscape upon which multiple narratives of exploitation and suffering within black womahood have been enacted, yet amid all, the woman remains invisible.”

Sarah’s remains were formally brought back to South Africa for reburial in 2002 on Women’s day, over 200 years after her death.

People like Sarah will never get the recognition they deserve, hence the onus is on the African people to bring such history to light.

We cannot afford to forget or tire of telling the story of our people.  

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1 COMMENT

  1. African Lawyers and Presidents are a disgrace to the continent. The same story happened to Chief Chingaira /Makoni in Zimbabwe whose head after being killed by the Germans , behearded him and took his head to German. He was buried without a head. Upto now that part of his body was never returned.
    No action was taken against these stupid whites by our authorities , its a shame.

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