Sara Baartman

(c. 1782—1816) celebrity and subject of scientific speculation

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Also known as Sara or Saartjie, and as Bartman (1788?–1815/16), a member of the Khoisan people of southern Africa, exhibited as a ‘freak’ in 19th-century Britain. Her original name is unknown, but when she was employed by a Dutch farmer called Peter Cezar, she was given the Afrikaans name of Saartjie [Little Sarah] Baartman, and this was later Anglicized in various forms. In 1810 she was brought to Britain by Peter Cezar's brother Hendric [or Henrick], a Boer farmer at the Cape, and Alexander Dunlop, a British army surgeon. Dunlop soon sold his interest in the enterprise to Cezar, who made money by exhibiting Baartman in London and elsewhere in Britain under the name of ‘the Hottentot Venus’. ‘Hottentot’ was a traditional derogatory term for Khoisan people, while ‘Venus’ appears intended to refer to the idea of ‘the Sable Venus’, or more generally, to white assumptions about the sexuality of black people. While black people had been treated as exhibits in Britain before (see Exhibits, black people as), this appears to be the first time in Britain, and possibly Europe, that a Khoisan person had been seen in this manner. It is clear from contemporary newspaper accounts that the main attraction for British curiosity-seekers was provided by Baartman's prominent buttocks and labia. Although it is sometimes said that she was exhibited naked, contemporary accounts suggest that she was (at least usually) clothed, though in a dress that was both skimpy and deliberately of a colour as close to her skin as possible, so as to suggest nakedness. It is also clear that those who had paid to see her were allowed, or, indeed, invited by Cezar to poke and prod her as they saw fit.


From The Oxford Companion to Black British History in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: British History.

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