Throughout Georgian London there are many ‘freaks’, whose main source of income was displaying themselves: tall or strong women, tiny people, the prematurely aged (probably suffering from progeria) and ‘mer-people’. Sexual freaks such as bearded ladies or hermaphrodites were particularly popular. Anything exotic or ‘other’ caused queues to form in the street outside the chosen venue of display. All of these factors combined to make the exhibition of Saartjie (‘little Sara’ in Dutch) Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, at 225 Piccadilly one of the sideshows of the age.
Sara was of the Khoikhoi people of South Africa. They had proved of particular interest to missionaries and early travelling scientists for numerous reasons, not least their distinctive features, often termed simian, and their clicking language. However, the greatest attraction for the ‘collectors’ of natural phenomena of the day was the appearance of Khoikhoi females: predisposed to carrying large amounts of fat on their breasts and high on their buttocks (called steatopygia). In addition to these distinctive features, the women of the tribe wore little or no clothing when in their natural environment, making their super-developed genitalia the focus of great curiosity for white male visitors.
Sara’s origin is unknown. She may not have grown up with the Khoikhoi, but been the child of enslaved parents. Alexander Dunlop was a ship’s surgeon and also acquired ‘specimens’ of all kinds for museums from the African Cape. In 1810, he brought Sara to England through Liverpool. She had been working in the Cape for a man named Peter Cezar, who had likely named her Saartjie Baartman, but Dunlop had promised her fame and fortune before the English public.
Upon her arrival in England, Dunlop sold Sara to a showman, Henrik Cezar (apparently coincidental). She was brought to London, and soon a flyer was produced advertising her presence, and the invitation to view, at 2 shillings a go. Charles Matthews was a keen ‘viewer’ of all London freakery, and he recorded his visit to the Hottentot Venus:
‘He found her surrounded by many persons, some females! One pinched her; one gentleman poked her with his cane; one lady employed her parasol to ascertain that all was, as she called it, ‘nattral.’ This inhuman baiting the poor creature bore with sullen indifference, except upon some provocation, when she seemed inclined to resent brutality.’
Matthews also referred to Sara being restrained by her ‘keeper’, making the whole idea by turns both grim and dismal in modern eyes. Sara was however, fully clothes during her exhibition, although the dress was tight in order to show her curves. Her naturally small waist was bound by African beads and ornaments for emphasis.
Sara’s exhibition caused an uproar, both by those rushing to see it, and amongst the more sensitive and also amongst the abolitionists who saw her condition as slavery. The Morning Chronicle, a liberal newspaper featured a letter on the 12th of October 1810 declaring, ‘It was contrary to every principle of morality and good order,’ but Cezar soon responded, argued that it was Sara’s right to exhibit herself and thus earn her living, just as if she were a giant or a dwarf. Sarah, however, was not like the other exhibits, she was all of them combined: female, black, physically unique and sexually intriguing.
Sara’s situation prompted a court case, with her would-be protectors stating that she was held against her will and pressing for her repatriation to Africa. The case failed, with the court finding for Cezar, but it soured the exhibition in London and Sara and Cezar moved on to Manchester (where she was baptised) and probably, Ireland.
In 1814, Sara was in Paris, being exhibited by an animal trainer and the following year would be studied by professors from the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. She was finally studied nude, having taken a great deal of persuading, and the resulting images of her were presented in a book about exotic animals. Prurience continued to masquerade as science and upon her death in 1815, she was anatomised in Paris by Georges Cuvier, with particular and particularly distasteful attention given to her genitalia. A cast of Sara’s body and her skeleton remained on show in Paris until the late 1970s, when she was finally able to take a break from exhibiting, it having taken only one hundred and seventy years for people to understand, as the reader of The Morning Chronicle had done in 1810, that it was an ‘offence to public decency’.