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Tribal Women in History - Sarah Baartman or the Hottentot Venus

Updated on May 26, 2017

Sarah Baartman

Hottentot Venus was an offensive name assigned to a woman by the name of Sarah Baartman, who experienced much degradation and humiliation in her lifetime.

Sarah was named Hottentot Venus by the proprietors of a freak show that she was made to perform at in Europe.

These European men had never seen and had no experience with knowing about the women of Sarah's tribe in Africa whose physical attributes were very pronounced and profound. Instead, they labeled Sarah as a 'freak'.

Present day, much debate surrounds whether performing in freak shows and being exhibited in museums was Sarah Baartman's own choice. The slave trade was active and it is said that she was considered property. Other accounts say that she may have been coerced but was still paid and as a very intelligent woman was fully aware that she would receive part of the proceeds from her exhibits.

Sarah Baartman of the ethnic group Khoikhoi lived in Cape Town, South Africa and was somehow convinced by a WIlliam Dunlop to follow him to London.

Sarah was a slave to a white family near Cape Town and was apparently promised wealth if she left for London. She even received governor permission (that was later regretted) to make the move.

Sarah lived and was exhibited in London, England for four years before moving to Paris. She was the most famous of at least two Khoikhoi women that were exhibited in this way at this time in history. They were contemptuously considered oversexualized and scientific curiosities because of their physical attributes including very large buttocks and and outward genitalia.

It is said that Sarah Baartman did not allow for exhibition of her genitalia while she was alive but after her death, 'scientists' with no respect for her remains removed these portions of her body and preserved them for exhibition.

Sadly, parts of Sarah's body were on display as late as beyond 1974! This was notably at the museum, Musee de l'Homme in Paris, France.

Sarah was born around 1790 the exact year is uncertain and she died in 1815. The circumstances of the her death are unclear. Some historical sources blame an infectious ailment such as smallpox. Others claim that she may have died of syphilis or some other sexually transmitted disease. Sarah had turned to a life of prostitution after she was dismissed from a Parisian freak show and museum because the novelty of her exhibit had passed for the Parisians.

photo credit: This caricature of Baartman was drawn in the early 19th century
photo credit: This caricature of Baartman was drawn in the early 19th century

Depiction of Sarah Baartman being exhibited

photo credit: "An early nineteenth century French print entitled La Belle Hottentot. "
photo credit: "An early nineteenth century French print entitled La Belle Hottentot. "

With Sarah's remains paraded around for exhibit after her death, there was an appeal for the disrespect to stop under South African President Nelson Mandela. Her body was returned to her native homeland South Africa for a respectul burial in Hankey in 2002, over 200 years after her birth.

Hankey, South Africa

photo credit:  Hankey, South Africa
photo credit: Hankey, South Africa

Storytelling of Sarah's (Saartjie's) story

Many historians of today who are sensitive to this subject matter clearly and prophetically warn that history must not repeat itself. For example, video vixens of the Hip-Hop generation should think twice before signing up to be an objectified and exploited Black female persona.


1. Sarah Baartman, at rest at last. Online retrieved 11/7/2011.


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    • Journey * profile imageAUTHOR

      Nyesha Pagnou MPH 

      5 years ago from USA

      Very tragic indeed. Thank you all very much for your comments.

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 

      6 years ago from Texas

      Never heard of the story until now. How bizarre and tragic!

    • DREAM ON profile image

      DREAM ON 

      6 years ago

      I admire her for her ability two learn three languages.It is awful how we exploit people for money.I am glad I learned about her and the tribe and the people.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this little known history. Rated up and interesting.

    • USHISTORY4YOU profile image

      Anthony Carrell 

      7 years ago from Lemoore California

      Very interesting, and sad.


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