Sarah Baartman: Reclaiming an African venus | African Roots | DW | 23.03.2018
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Sarah Baartman: Reclaiming an African venus

Changing from domestic servant to wondrous attraction, Sarah Baartman was considered an ape in Europe. Though people paid in droves to stare at her body, she died in poverty far from her South African home.

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Sarah Baartman: Reclaiming an African venus

When did Sarah Baartman live?

Sarah Baartmann, also known as Saartjie Baartman, was born circa 1789 in the vicinity of the Gamtoos River, in what is now South Africa's Eastern Cape province. She belonged to the Khoikhoi people. Orphaned at an early age, Baartman moved to Cape Town where she worked as a servant for a "free black man" and later moved with him to Europe. After touring Great Britain, she moved to Paris where she died famous, but poor, in 1815.

What was Sarah Baartman's claim to fame?

In Europe, she was exhibited as an exotic attraction. Her body features, not uncommon with South African Khoikhoi women, were considered a sensation in England and France: Baartman had a slender waistline with big buttocks and large sexual organs. She was nick-named the Hottentot Venus. Hottentot was a European name for the Khoikhoi people, while Venus alludes to the Roman goddess of love

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Sarah Baartman - 192 years in Europe

Was Sarah Baartman a victim of racism?

It is not clear whether she traveled to London of her own accord or if she was forced. Neither do we know exactly how much say she did have in the revues where she presented herself to audiences. But Baartman definitely suffered from the racist mindset that dominated Europe's view on the world in the early 19th century. Generally, following cultural and biological, Africans were considered to be lesser developed human beings. The Khoikhoi people of Southern Africa, rarely seen in Europe, were even de-humanized. After her death, Napoleon's surgeon, the renowned naturalist Georges Cuvier, dissected Baartman's body, concluding she had ape-like features. For almost 160 years, her remains were displayed at the French National Museum in Paris, making her a victim of scientific racism.

Did Sarah Baartman ever return to South Africa?

The end of apartheid saw a revival of interest in Baartman's story. South Africa, under Nelson Mandela, started to fight for the repatriation of her remains. But it was only in 2002 that her body was finally returned home. Her burial in her home province of Eastern Cape put an end to nearly two centuries spent abroad.

How is Sarah Baartman remembered today?

The fight for Baartman's repatriation was a fight against racist violence. With her posthumous victory, Sarah Baartman remains a symbol of overcoming oppression to South Africans even today. Her home district in Eastern Cape province was given her name - Sarah Baartman. In Cape Town, bearing the name South Africans fondly remember her by, the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children takes care of those who survived abuse.

Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth, Thuso Khumalo and Gwendolin Hilse contributed to this package. It is part of DW's special series "African Roots", dedicated to African history, a project realized in cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

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