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.
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.