“We cannot undo the damage that was done to her. But at least we can summon the courage to speak the naked but healing truth that must comfort her wherever she may be.” –Thabo Mbeki
Sarah Baartman, the “first known Black female victim of trafficking,” died on 29 December 1815. A Khoi-san woman of South Africa, she was lured to Europe with the promise of fame and riches. She was transported to England in 1810 and exhibited on stage in a cage as a freak known as the Hottentot Venus. A court battle waged by abolitionists to free her from her exhibitors failed. In 1814 she was taken to France, and became the object of scientific and medical research that formed the bedrock of European sick ideas about black female sexuality. After her death, her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974 and were not repatriated and buried until 2002. Today she is seen by many as the epitome of colonial exploitation and racism, of the ridicule and commodification of Black people.
It is believed that Sarah Baartman, also known as Sara or Saartjie, was born in South Africa’s Eastern Cape in 1789. She belonged to the cattle-herding Gonaquasub group of the Khoikhoi. Her mother died when she was aged two and her father, who was a cattle driver, died when she reached adolescence. Baartman married a Khoikhoi man who was a drummer and they had one child together who died shortly after birth. When she was sixteen years old her fiancé was murdered by Dutch colonists. Soon after, she was sold into slavery to a trader named Pieter Willem Cezar, who took her to Cape Town where she became a domestic servant to his brother. It was during this time that she was given the name ‘Saartjie’, a Dutch diminutive for Sara.