Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Monday, August 8, 2011


She was forced to squat in front of the jeering mob, a stranger who was far from home.
The crowd stared at her protruding buttocks and oversized vulva before cracking lewd and bawdy jokes.
'Exhibited like a wild beast'
Sarah Baartman had arrived in England a few weeks earlier, in the autumn of 1810, and was already famous as the ‘Hottentot Venus’.
She was displayed (to a fee-paying audience) as a sexual deviant and example of the inferiority of the black race.
Baartman had been brought to England from Cape Town by a British ship’s doctor, William Dunlop. He was fascinated by her large backside and genitalia - not uncommon to the Khoisan people to whom she belonged - and immediately saw an opportunity to make money by displaying her in public.
On public display
He coerced her into travelling to London with the promise that she would get very rich.
Sarah Baartman arrived in the capital in 1810, less than three years after the abolition of the Slave Trade. She was taken to fashionable Piccadilly, where - outside Number 225 - she was first exposed to the city’s baying crowds.
According to one contemporary account, she was paraded on a two-foot high stage ‘along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered’.
She was not naked, as her promoters would have liked. But The Times reported that she was ‘dressed in a colour as nearly resembling her skin as possible. The dress is contrived to exhibit the entire frame of her body, and the spectators are even invited to examine the peculiarities of her form.’
'Now exhibiting in London'
The show's promoters knew their business: they billed her genitals as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey's throat. 
The spectacle of an enslaved woman being put on public display courted controversy from the very outset. Among the outraged was a young Jamaican named Robert Wedderburn. He knew all too well the horrors of slavery: his mother had been the slave of a Scottish sugar plantation owner. When she fell pregnant, Wedderburn senior sold her to an aristocrat friend with the proviso that the baby should be free from birth.
Wedderburn: appalled
Robert’s rough upbringing left him with a strong sense of justice. He was appalled by the spectacle of Sarah Baartman being paraded before the crowd. After courting the abolitionist African Association, he petitioned for her release.
In November, 1810, the attorney-general tried to discover whether ‘she was exhibited by her own consent'. Two affidavits were produced which suggested that she had never consented to be brought to England for public display.
The first affidavit revealed that she had been brought to Britain by people who referred to her as their private property. The second described the degrading conditions under which she was exhibited.
Georgian London: not the most discerning crowd
Sarah herself was also questioned; she claimed that she had not been coerced and had been promised half the profits of her travelling tour. But her testimony was flawed and was almost certainly made under coercion.
The attorney-general backed the attempt to stop the show, but the court ruled that Sarah had entered into a contract of her own free will. The show went on.
George Cuvier: took a fancy to her
After four years on the road, Sarah was moved to Paris where she was sold to a travelling circus. She was also exhibited at society functions where she proved an instant hit with the guests.
At one ball she was dressed in nothing but a few feathers: Napoleon's surgeon-general, George Cuvier, was fascinated by the sight and began a detailed study of her body.
Elephant man: still to be buried
Sarah eventually turned to alcohol and prostitution and died in 1815, possibly of syphilis. Cuvier managed to acquire her corpse, which he promptly dissected. He then pickled Sarah’s genitals and brain, and put them, and her skeleton, on display.
She remained in the Musee de l’Homme until 1974, when public revulsion caused the pickled body parts to be removed. But it was not until 2002 - after the intervention of Nelson Mandela - that her remains were finally returned to her native South Africa and given a decent burial.
Sarah was neither the first nor last person to be displayed as a human freak. Seventy years later, another human specimen found himself being paraded through the streets of London. His name was Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man.
His skeleton has yet to be buried: it is still housed in the pathology collection of the Royal London Hospital. 

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