Sarah Baartman: The Black Woman Who Was Exploited For Her Big Booty

May 2, 2023 4 comments

The story of Sarah Baartman is a story of abuse and objectification that has become a powerful symbol of colonial exploitation and racism, and of the ridicule and commodification of black people. Sarah, also known as the "Hottentot Venus," was a Khoi woman from South Africa who was taken from her homeland and exhibited as a "freak show" attraction in Europe in the early 19th century owing to her unusually large buttocks.

Image credit: The British Museum/Wikimedia

Sarah was born in 1789 to a Khoekhoe family in the Gamtoos Valley in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Her original name was believed to have been Ssehura, from which Sarah earned her Dutch name Saartjie (or little Sarah) while she was working on a colonial farm. Her surname “Baartman” was also given to her by her masters, and it literally means “bearded man” in Dutch. It also means uncivilized, uncouth, barbarous and savage.

At the age of 16, Sarah was sold into slavery to a trader named Pieter Cesars, who took her to Cape Town where she became a domestic servant to his brother, Hendrik Cesars. During this time, Sarah gave birth to two children, though both died as babies.

Because of her naturally curvaceous body, Hendrik Cesars began to show her at the city hospital in exchange for cash. One of the surgeons, Alexander Dunlop, who supplied showmen in Britain with animal specimens as a side business, took interest. Sarah had a condition called steatopygia, which leads to substantial collection of fat in the buttocks and thighs. She also had an elongated inner labia causing the skin of her genitalia to hang down below her vulva. Her appearance was typical for Khosian women but it was a rare and erotic projection for Europeans. Dunlop saw an opportunity to exploit her and began pressuring Sarah into traveling to Europe to make money as an exhibit herself.

At first Sarah refused but eventually succumbed to the pressure from Dunlop and agreed to go. Thus on 1810, Sarah, Cesars and Dunlop arrived in London and took up residence in Duke Street, St. James, one of the most expensive part of London.

Sarah was displayed in a building in Piccadilly, and thousands of Londoners came to gawk and ogle at her large buttocks. For two shillings, people could gaze upon her body. Those who were willing to pay a little more were permitted to touch her.

Image credit: The British Museum

“She was objectified in the most literal sense, put on display in front of gaping crowds six days a week, doing suggestive "native" dancing and playing African instruments. Her costume was a flesh-colored silk sheath deliberately cut like a second skin, with copious jewelry at the seams to conceal the fact that she wasn't technically naked,” writes Marisa Meltzer in Salon.

Sarah’s exhibition in London after the 1807 Slave Trade Act caused an outcry among abolitionists. The campaigners were appalled at Sarah's treatment and brought her employers to trial. But Sarah herself testified in their favor, recording in a statement that she had not been sexually abused and had come to London on her own free will and that she had no desire to return to her family.

After spending four years in England, Sarah was taken to France by an animal trainer named Jean Riaux, and exhibited at the Palais Royal in Paris. During this time Sarah was practically enslaved, with Riaux treating her like any other animal, ordering her to sit or stand in a similar way that a trainer orders circus animals. At times she was exhibited in a cage.

Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully writes in Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus:: “By the time she got to Paris, her existence was really quite miserable and extraordinarily poor. Sara was literally treated like an animal. There is some evidence to suggest that at one point a collar was placed around her neck.”

Sarah came under the attention of French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who began to study her as a specimen to further scientific racism. Sarah also agreed to be studied and painted by a group of scientists and artists but refused to appear fully naked before them, wearing a small apron-like garment to cover her genitalia.

In 1815, the city underwent swift transformations amidst a series of events. The failure of crops led to a surge in food prices, while Napoleon's brief return to power was followed by his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June. As the nation plunged into a state of economic depression, people had less disposable income to spend on entertainment such as the showcasing of the Hottentot Venus. Sarah’s promoter was compelled to exhibit her at less prominent locations, including a brothel, where she may have also been subject to prostitution.

The same year, Sarah died, possibly due to pneumonia or syphilis aggravated by alcoholism. Georges Cuvier dissected her body and concluded that many of Sarah’s features were ape-like, in accordance with his theories on racial evolution. He thought her small ears were similar to those of an orangutan and also compared her vivacity, when alive, to the quickness of a monkey. Before Cuvier cut her up, he made a plaster cast of her body, preserved her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals, placing them in jars. They were on display at Paris's Museum of Man until the 1970s when it elicited complaints for being a degrading representation of women.

In 2002, under pressure from President Nelson Mandela’s government, the French government agreed to return her remains, and she was reburied at Hankey, in Eastern Cape province.

Modern anthropologists believe that Sarah’s exaggerated female form could have been more widespread in humans in the past, based on carvings of female forms dating to the Paleolithic era which are collectively known as Venus figurines.

Although Sarah’s life ended a long time ago, the public’s fascination for butts did not. In November 2014, Paper Magazine released a cover of reality television star Kim Kardashian balancing a champagne glass on her protruding bottom. The publication faced considerable criticism for promoting “the exploitation and fetishism of the black female body.” Feminist critics contended that the objectification of Sarah's body and the ethnographic depiction of her image mirrored the current representation of Kardashian in the media. However, some black women have found Sarah's story to be empowering, as it challenges the ideals of white mainstream beauty, given that curvaceous bodies are increasingly celebrated in popular culture and mass media.

# Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus
# Searching for Sara Baartman, John Hopkin's Magazine
# The significance of Sarah Baartman, BBC
# Sara “Saartjie” Baartman, South African History Online
# Venus abused, Salon
# How Sarah Baartman’s hips went from a symbol of exploitation to a source of empowerment for Black women, The Conversation


  1. The big difference here is that Sarah was an unwilling participant. The Kardashians willingly and shamelessly flaunt their wares.

  2. This also shows the filth that exist in the western europe and their mentality. Literally the pimp of humanity, no other part of the world, would objectify woman, promote pornography , slavery etc except the western european. They are curse of humanity and the old world- should boycott the english, french world.

  3. Evil has existed in all times and among all peoples and cultures: most notably in the ease with which humanity engages and trades in the degradation of its own priceless, God-given dignity. As for the preceding commenters, your hateful attempt to pin the source on “Western Europeans” says much about you, none of it good.


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