Who Is Saartije Baartman?

Eurocentrism – A political term coined in the 1980s, referring to the perception of European exceptionalism, a worldview based upon Western civilization, during its development in the height of the European colonialism dating from earlier, modern times.

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Image credit(s): Black Women of Brazil

Afrocentrism – A cultural ideology or worldview that focuses on the history of Africans. It is a response to global Eurocentric attitudes about African people, and their historical contributions; it revisits their history with an African cultural and ideological focus. Afrocentricity deals primarily with self-determination, pro-blackness, and is a Pan-African ideology in culture, philosophy, and history.

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Image credit(s): Afrocentric Confessions | Pinterest | Tumblr

For as long as Western civilization has existed, Eurocentrism has played a major role in the colonization of the modern world. From the Americas, to Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, Eurocentrism has left a huge mark on societal standards to this day.  It has become so powerful, that to an extent it has erased the history of several ethnicities over the course of centuries. Starting as early as the 15th Century with the “Age of Discovery,” the Portuguese and Spanish began their explorations of “The New World.”

Although these lands were seen as discoveries, they’ve been here for several millienia, filled with people who have inhabited the lands dating back to the Ice Age. Of course however, these were not peaceful discoveries. The lands were forcefully taken, leaving many left to die. Thousands were raped, killed, plagued with diseases, and left to starve. Not to mention the millions forced out of their native lands into slavery. There was also sexual objectification of bodies for the sake of entertainment and leisure, and the heightened appearance of both racism and prejudice. Even in the 21st Century, the latter exists within the media and stereotypes that were created over time.

An perfect example of objectification of the human body is none other than Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman:

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Saartije “Sarah” Baartman (c.1790-1815) Image Credit: Buzz South Africa

Saartije “Sarah” Baartman (c. 1790-1815), infamously known as “Venus Hottentot,” was a woman of the Khoi tribe located in South Africa. Baartman was orphaned at an early age and was then enslaved by a Dutch farmer. What made Baartman and many Khoi women stand out, was their wide hips and large derrières. A Dutch military surgeon who lived nearby had taken note of Baartman’s body features and shipped her off to England as a freak show attraction. By 1807, a slave trade act was passed which led to the public denouncing of Baartman as an attraction, causing the demand for her release. Though she allegedly chose not to return to South Africa, she was purchased as a slave and lived in France under intense, inhumane conditions.

As Baartman’s popularity declined, she was forced to resort to prostitution to make ends meet. The stress and anxiety from becoming a public spectacle had also caused her to become a heavy drinker. As a result of contracting syphilis, Saartije Baartman died at about age 25 in Paris, France. After her death, her body was dissected, but never actually autopsied to properly determine the cause of death. Baartman’s remains were preserved and put on display at a Paris museum until 2002, when her remains were moved back to her native South Africa, where she received a proper burial.

Interestingly enough, Saartije Baartman’s large behind inspired a fashion trend in the 19th Century. This trend was created by using bustle pads, which were separate, tied-up objects, or small, square pillows the size of a fist that were sewn to the back of a gown.

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One of the many variations of a bustle pad. Image by Jessamy’s Regency Costume Companion

Though the trend fell in and out of style over the course of the century, when properly fitted, the end result would look similar to this:

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Image Credit(s): Historical Sewing

In today’s terms, this would be considered as capitalizing off of another race by using their features as the opposing race’s own. The above of course indeed falls within that description. As Baartman’s natural features were exploited and abused for entertainment and wealth gain, she herself never made much money. Considering that the 19th Century was still a time were Africans were enslaved, oddly enough England, where Baartman was held, had outlawed slave trade in 1807 — but not slavery itself. The actual outlawing of slavery didn’t take place until 1833, with the Slavery Abolition Act.

Is Baartman still considered a symbol to this day? Absolutely. Though her story has become heavily marginalized due to lost information and records about her, Saartije Baartman is one of the painful results of western modernization.

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