Friday, September 10, 2010

Sarah Baartman, the most famous Khoikhoi woman

PD Image: Sarah Baartman, a caricature drawn in the early 19th century.

Sarah ‘Saartjie, Baartman (1789-1815), is the most famous of the Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as freak show attractions in 19th century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus, Hottentot being an offensive name used for the Khoi people and Venus referring to the Roman goddess of love.

Sarah Baartman, born to a Khoisan family in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, a slave of Dutch farmers near Cape Town, was taken to London in 1810 and exhibited around Britain, forced to entertain people by gyrating her body and showing to Europeans what were thought of as highly unusual body features.

A Frenchman purchased Sarah Baartman and took her to France, and an animal trainer Regu exhibited her under more pressured conditions for fifteen months. Initially she became popular among the nobles, artists and others, and when the novelty had worn thin with the Parisians, she began to drink heavily and support herself with prostitution.

She died on 29 December 1815 at the age of 25, of an undetermined ailment, speculated as smallpox, syphilis, or pneumonia. Her skeleton, body parts and brain were placed on display in Paris' Musée de l'Homme until 1974.

From the 1940’s there were mounting pressures on the French for the return of her remains to her native South Africa. After the victory of African National Congress in 1994, President Nelson Mandela formally requested France to return Sarah Baartman’s remains. After much legal wrangling and debates in the French National Assembly, France acceded to the request on 6 March 2002. Baartman’s remains were repatriated to her homeland, the Gamtoos Valley, on 6 May 2002 and buried on 9 August 2002 at Vergaderingskop, a hill in the town of Hankey about 200 years after her birth.

Sarah Baartman became a popular subject for many writers, humanists, and those who opposed exhibiting human beings as zoo animals are exhibited. Now there is The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children opened in Cape Town opened in 1999, and South Africa's first offshore environmental protection vessel, the Sarah Baartman, is also named after her.

A French drama film, ‘Black Venus’ (French: Vénus noire), based on the life of Sarah Baartman, featuring Yahima Torres as Sarah Baartman, directed by Abdel Kechiche is scheduled for release date on 27 October 2010.

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