Sara Baartman, 51 years later

zamantungwa | August 1st, 2007 | essays | No Comments

It’s been 51 years since the women of South Afrika took to the street and went and faced the apartheid government to let them know what their demands were; five years since Sara Baartman was returned home and laid to rest; and, perhaps, since the begin of time since the female form has been used and abused to different ends including art, science, culture and religion – and most of the reasons negative.

Sara Baartman was not the first, the last or only woman whose body became her prison. But she is one of the most famous in the world and definitely important for the South Afrikan, and indeed the Afrikan, woman. Who was Sara Baartman and more importantly who is she now – what does she mean to South Afrikan women, that is, if she means anything at all?

Five years ago on August 9, a 187 year old skeleton was for the first time given a burial. Women cried, sang and talked. This 187 year old skeleton was Sara Baartman, a woman who when she died on foreign soil probably never thought that she would become so important or ever come back home.

The facts

Sara Baartman was born in 1789 in the Gamtoos River in what is now known as the Eastern Cape Province of South Afrika. She was of the Khoisan people, a people who have been pushed into the margins and almost to extinction by various groups including the Dutch and British settlers and the various Bantu tribes. The Khoisan were a nomadic people who were eventually pushed into settler state when the Europeans forced their way into South Afrika The Khoi still live in the margins of society in South Afrika, Botswana and Namibia were some of still semi-nomadic…

In her late teens, Sara, came to the Cape and became a farmer’s slave. She lived and worked there until 1810. In 1810, British ship doctor, William Dunlop, brought her then Sara that she would make a lot of money exhibiting herself to the Europeans in London. Her body would from then on become a sore point for many Afrikans particularly the Khoisan people. So off to London she went.

In London, Sara would become what we today may regard an exploited porn star. She was paraded in a building in Piccadilly – naked. Often made to walk side ways, stand or sit as ordered – much like a circus animal. She was also told to show off her “protruding” posterior and her “large” genitals. Sara Baartman and William Dunlop had reached London at a time when the anti-slavery debate was big It was around 1810 so it took almost another 20 years before Britain made slavery illegal. But in court it was found that Sara had “entered” into a formal agreement with William – but had she ever seen that document? Much less understood what it meant? This will never be known. William Dunlop bought Sara from her last master therefore she was his slave, so there shouldn’t be any illusion about her having any free will.

Sara was in London for four years and then handed to a Parisian showman of wild animals and the “show” carried on in Paris. Between 1814 and 1815, Sara was with a travelling circus often being “handled” by an animal trainer. Sara Baartman died in 1816 at the age of 25, a poor prostitute, an alcoholic and lonely woman; it was also believed that she had syphilis… But the show went on – she was handed over to George Cuvier who made a plaster of her body, dissected her and conserved her genitals and brain in bottles of formaldehyde Used in embalming to disinfect and temporarily preserve human remains pending final disposition. There she (skeleton, brain and genitals) would lie in pieces, her spirit in limbo for the French and others to experiment on her and gawk at her until 1976 when her remains were no longer on show.

Sara Baartman’s journey home began in 1994 when former president Nelson Mandela made the call to his French counterpart, a law had to be passed only in 2002 and only then did the French see fit to set her free. Her remains came back to South Afrika in January 2002 and finally, on the 9th of August 2002, laid to rest at the place of her birth. Where, no doubt, her ancestors embraced her.

Sara Baartman’s Significance

From a humanitarian perspective, Sara Baartman is a heavyweight. She’s heavy because not only does she represent all those “different” people who have and probably still are like “kept” animals being used and exhibited in circuses, she also represents all those girls and women that are lured daily into situations were they are trafficked to other lands to serve as labour and mostly sex slaves. She represents the remains of other Afrikans and Afrikan treasures be it skulls, brains or organs, art or symbols that are kept in museums all over the world and in some white man’s private collection. She represents our Afrikan body issues ñ breasts too big or small, butt t big, hair too kinky… Sara Baartman represents all the ludicrous claims (masked as religion or science) that Europeans have used against Afrikans to class us sub-human and therefore justify segregation, apartheid, discrimination and slavery. Sara Baartman represents all these girls and women and all the slaves of the past and the slaves of today. Forgotten, unaccounted for, unseen, anonymous, alive, drugged, duped, brainwashed and still showing on a TV set near you or a so-called cultural village in some bush resort…

The different faces of Sara Baartman, from Josephine Baker and Aunt Jumaima to prostitutes and sex slaves to video girls and porn stars, fill the media but most are only a statistic, a number, in some police commissioners office file. Many will never be found.

It is important that we do not forget Sara Baartman and those like her. It is important that we seek the freedom of all those that are still held captive in museums or are being captured daily by human traffickers to be sold into sex trades and labour all over the world. Their freedom is as imperative as Sara Baartman’s freedom is. It is important for those of us who have body issues to we remember Sara Baartman and remember what her body came to represent – we need to kill the “hottentot venus” she is not who we are or who Sara is.

We need to break free from our bodies for we can not allow our bodies to become our prisons too.

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