One of the first black women to be identified as a victim of human sexual trafficking was Saartjie (Sara) Baartman. She was mockingly dubbed the “Hottentot Venus” by Europeans because during her brief life, her body was cruelly exposed and subjected to public scrutiny. Additionally, her experience confirmed Europeans’ already-present, highly harmful sexual obsession with the bodies of African women.
At the Gamtoos River, which is now known as the Eastern Cape in South Africa, Sara Baartman was born in 1789. Baartman and her family belonged to the Khoikhoi Gonaquasub tribe. Baartman was raised on a colonial farm, perhaps as a servant with her family. Her father, a cattle driver, passed away when she was still a tiny girl, and her mother passed away when she was just two years old.
By the time she was a teenager, Baartman had wed a drummer from the Khoikhoi tribe. Together, they had a child who passed very soon after birth. Baartman’s spouse was killed by Dutch colonists when she was sixteen. Shortly after, she was bought into slavery by a trader named Pieter Willem Cezar. He took her to Cape Town where he sold her to his brother Hendrik as a domestic slave. Although she was unable to read, 21-year-old Baartman allegedly signed a contract on October 29, 1810, with a doctor named William Dunlop who was a friend of the Cezar brothers.
Because officially slavery had been outlawed in Great Britain, this contract obliged her to travel to England and Ireland with the Cezar brothers and Dunlop in order to serve as a domestic servant there. Additionally, she would be on display for amusement. After five years, Baartman would be granted permission to return to South Africa and receive a percentage of the proceeds from her shows. But the agreement was entirely fake, and she was kept in servitude for the rest of her life.
On November 24, 1810, Baartman debuted in London at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly Circus. However, British abolitionists were quick to take notice of her public treatment and accused Dunlop and the Cezars of holding Baartman against her will. Pieter Cezar produced the contract that Baartman had signed, and the judge made a decision against Baartman. Moreover, Baartman affirmed in court that she wasn’t being mistreated.
The court trial’s media coverage raised Baartman’s popularity as an exhibit. By 1812, she had traveled all over England and even as far as Limerick, Ireland.
After spending four years in Britain, Baartman was transported to France in September 1814 and sold to S. Reaux, an animal exhibitor. He displayed Baartman to the general public in and around Paris, frequently at the Palais Royal. Additionally, he permitted customers who were willing to pay for her profanity to mistreat her sexually. Due to the public’s obsession with Baartman’s body, Reaux made a sizable profit.
On December 29, 1815, Sara Saartjie Baartman, then 26 years old, passed away in Paris. She may have passed away from syphilis or TB. Many of her body parts would remain on display at the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris even after her death to perpetuate racist ideas about persons with African descent. Up until 1974, some of the body parts were on exhibit.
The return of Baartman’s remains to South Africa was officially requested by South African President Nelson Mandela in 1994. Her remains were repatriated and interred at Hankey in the Eastern Cape Province on March 6, 2002.