The public’s fascination with women who have large bums has been around a lot longer then many of you may think. In 19th century Europe, an black woman by the name of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman was famous for her notably large booty. She was in her early twenties, voluptuous, and tiny standing only four foot seven. She performed on stages in London and Pariscaptivating audiences with routines filled with singing, dancing, and musical instruments. In her native land, she practices multiple instruments and learned Dutch, English, some French. She was known as being very literate and sophisticated but how did a poor woman from southwestern Africa end up becoming famous in Europe in the 1800s?
Baartman was born in 1789 near the Gamtoos River Valley, South Africa and sadly her early life was filled with sadness and death. Her mother passed away when she was an infant andher father was murdered in her teenage years. At an early age, Baartman got married to a drummer and they had a child together. Unfortunately, the child passed away around two and her relationship collapsed. Afterwards, she worked as a servant and wet nurse to a free black man named Hendrik Cesars where there were children she could take care of while mourning her child. Eventually, Hendrik Cesars job became unstable causing Sarah Baartman’s employment to suffer also. They decided to go in together on a get-rich-quick-scheme with his brother Pieter andan unemployed physician Alexander Dunlop.
There is a wonderful biography on Sarah Baartman by Rachel Holmes called African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus. In it Holmes believes, “Alexander Dunlop, HendrikCesars and his brother Pieter must have been paying close attention to Sarah, for it was at this point that they hatched an audacious plan.” Now this plan was to illegally immigrate her into Europe and then make her a bootylicious superstar!
Freak shows were a very popular form of entertainment and the Europeans thought the Khoikhoi people, as Sarah was, were rare and exotic. Although few Europeans had seen a Khoikhoi woman up close they were rumoured to have a huge butt and unusually long private parts.
There were speculations that Baartman may have been forced against her will into Europe’s freak show circuit, however, in her biography, Rachel Holmes made an interesting point. She says: “Which would you chose? Would you rather be a maid in Cape Town, stirring ashes? You’re young! You’re 21! If someone tells you, ‘Get on a ship, and go make your fame and fortune,’ you’re like, ‘Yeah! I’m gonna take my chances there.”
Alexander Dunlop, Hendrik Cesars were extremely committed to launching her career and luckily secured space in the fashionable Piccadilly in London. The two built a stage for Sarah. They sent out posters for Baartman’s performance everywhere possible. The ad said:
“[F]rom the banks of the river Gamtoos, on the borders of Kaffraria, in the interior of South Africa, a most correct and perfect specimen of that race of people. From this extraordinary phenomenon of nature, the Public will have an opportunity of judging how far she exceeds any description given by historians of that tribe of the human race.”
Finally, she had her stage debut on September 24th, 1810 as the Hottentot Venus. Each performance was around four hours and six days a week. These carefully choreographed routines became an overnight sensation in London. The performances were similar and all began with Baartman coming out of her grass hut followed by singing and dancing. She sang in several languages including her maternal tongue that captivated audiences. There was pressure on Sarah Baartman to perform naked, but she did not want any of that, so even though she appeared naked, she was actually wearing a skin-coloured body stocking. The stocking was so tight that audience members thought she was completely naked and would actually reach up to touch and grab her inappropriately.
So was Sarah Bartman a sell out, a willfull prostitute of sorts, or was she the victim of extreme exploitation against her will? Although she had the fame, things were not exactly a bed of roses.
After her daily performance, her day was not over but only just beginning. She performed at night in private parties for elite guests. Even when there was no performance scheduled, she would not be able to rest and rode in a carriage through towns in London waving at crowds. This exhaustion was taking it toll on Sarah when she was to be on stage, it could easily be seen.
Her exhaustion was so visible that abolitionists brought it up to a High Court to restore her freedom. However Sarah Baartmen herself argued against the court and said she wanted to stay because she hadn’t made her fortune yet. Afterwards, tickets for her show skyrocketed from the publicity and she performed her last show in London in 1811.
Baartman wanted to take a break and enjoy her life while she was young. This break onlylasted two years and then she returned to the stage in Paris in 1814. By now, Baartman was a famous icon for a very BIG reason. And during her successful time in Paris she became an alcoholic. She was incredibly lonely after Alexander Dunlop died and Hendrik Cesars returned home to his family.
Sadly, on a cold night in December 1816 Saartjie Baartman died in Paris. She was only twenty-six and her cause of death was unknown but speculated to have been pneumonia aggravated by alcohol. The story isn’t over yet…
Less than twenty-four hours after her death, her corpse was brought illegally to the Natural History Museum. Georges Cuvier (Ku-vee-ay) and his assistants cut her up, made casts of her body parts, boiled her bones, and placed her brain and genitals in preservation fluid. Then,
Cuvier assembled the plaster casts and painted over them in realistic detail. Baartman’s body parts and cast would be on display in the National Museum of Natural History until the 1970s.
Her body, or what was left of it, finally was sent home to Africa 187 years after she died in 2002 after the president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, brought up this issue with the French president. Crowds flocked to the airport wanting to witness the arrival of Baartman’s casket that was wrapped in the flag of new South Africa. She received a state funeral where two and a half thousand people showed up.
On one hand, Perhaps Sarah would have lived a longer more fullfilling life in Africa, looks like the pursuit for fame and fortune got the best of her. But the popular belief is that she indeed was forced against her will from the beginning by men only looking for their personal gain.