Saartjie Baartman

Signboard at Sara Baartman's grave
Signboard at Sara Baartman’s grave

Yesterday SAFM held a discussion about Sara Baartman, a famous Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as a ‘fascination’ in Europe in the early part of the 19th Century. As in the case of Nat Nakasa, Sara’s remains were eventually returned to South Africa for a proper burial as required by her Khoikhoi heritage. Sara, or Saartjie as she was popularly known, was taken to England after she was sold into slavery by the Dutch in the Cape. According to a contract that Sara supposedly ‘signed’ (an unlikely story as Sara was illiterate), she would be entitled to a portion of the money that was earned through the exhibitions where her unusual and very un-European physique were put on display. She would also be allowed to return to South Africa after five years. Instead Sara died penniless in Paris some six years later after being displayed in a cage, sometimes alongside animals, dressed only in a loin cloth. Her body was dissected after her death and her brain, genitals and skeleton were on display in Paris’s Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Man) until 1974.

Sara’s story is a terrible one, and one that we would probably like to forget, but it is also worth remembering as an example of how far we have come. While it sometimes seems like the world is so divided (and it still is in many ways), South Africa really has come a long way in uniting its people, something that isn’t always acknowledged.

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