The story of Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman is well known. She was the most famous of at least two Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as freak show attractions in Europe in the 1800s. While many are familiar with her story, there are a few interesting facts that are commonly overlooked. Check them out below:
1. She spoke 4 languages
While many people believe that Baartman only spoke Dutch, she actually spoke a number languages. In addition to her native tongue, she spoke fluent Dutch, passable English, and a little bit of French.
2. She was exhibited over 100 times in London, alone
London was Baartman’s first stop after she was taken from South Africa. While she left willingly, she was mislead into what she would actually be doing (for the rest of her life). Before leaving London, she was exhibited over 200 times.
3. She refused to show her elongated labial lips
One of Baartman’s most fascinating features to European patrons were her elongated labial lips which hung about 3-4 inches down. Scientists were fascinated by this feature and repeatedly begged and even offered her money to show them to the public, but Baartman refused every time. At times she would pose naked but would demand that she wear an apron around her waste to hide her genitals.
4. She was a skilled musician
French naturalist Georges Cuvier noted in his studies of Baartman that she could dance according to the traditions of her country, had a lively personality, and was extremely skilled at playing the Jew’s Harp.
5. For extra cash, civilians were allowed touch her
Baartman was considered a freak of nature by Europeans. For extra pay, one could poke and prod her with a stick or finger. Baartman was said to have been treated like an animal in a cage. It is speculated that she even had to wear a collar at one point.
6. She declined a rescue attempt
After the passing of the Slave Trade Act 1807, the African Association began a newspaper campaign to have Baartman released. They took the matter to court but Baartman stated that she was not under restraint, had not been sexually abused and that she came to London on her own free will. She also said that she understood that she was only receiving half of the profits that she earned and that she did not wish to return home. These statements remained contradictory to that of eyewitnesses, but the case was still dismissed.
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