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I was scrolling through my Youtube homepage the other day, as one does, in search of something to watch. After a few minutes of fruitless searching, I refreshed my feed and came across a video titled “The Tragic Story of Sarah Baartman.” Her name sounded too familiar, so I decided to click, because I was eager  to remember where I had recognized her from! Within 30 seconds , I immediately remembered her story, and felt that it needed to be shared.

Sarah Baartman was a South African woman born in 1789 to parents  part of the Khoi Khoi tribe. Sarah lived a tragic childhood, as her mother died in childbirth and her father died when she was a young girl. As if this wasn’t enough, when she was a young woman, her fiance was murdered by Dutch colonists, leaving her all alone. During this time, the Dutch gradually began to take over South Africa with brutal force, having little regard for the native people that had lived there for centuries. As Dutch and Khoi Khoi relationships became increasingly hostile, Sarah was sold into slavery and was forced to work as a domestic servant to a Dutch man named Pieter William Cezar.

What was so notable about Sarah’s story is the thing she was constantly shamed for and gawked at: her body. Women of this tribe were shaped differently from their  European counterparts, namely that they were much curvier and had a darker complexion. Because of this, Sarah became an oddity. This is when she was no longer regarded as a human being, but rather a commodity who could be sold for profit. 

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In 1810, Sarah was given the opportunity to go abroad with a Mr. William Dunlop, who said that she would have a position overseas, and would make a better living than she was in South Africa. Sarah agreed, believing that she would get a decent sum of  earnings and be able to return home every 5 years. However, Sarah was unable to read the contract because it was in English. It should be noted that although she could not read, she was fluent in several languages including french, dutch, and english, along with her own native tongue. Dunlop took advantage of this and manipulated the contract to operate in his favor, leaving Sarah blindsided.

When Sarah arrived in England, the things she had been promised never came into fruition. Instead, she was displayed amongst other oddities in a cage, her half naked body shown for all to see. Not only was this work humiliating for Sarah, but the earnings that she was promised were never given to her. She was treated inhumanely and many of the advertisements for her act portrayed her in a vulgar and demeaning light, some even went so far as to depict her as “the missing link between man and ape.” 

After enduring four years of awful treatment under Dunlop and Cezar, she moved to France where she was sold to a man who trained circus animals. Under this new man, she was displayed alongside a rhino and quite literally treated as an animal. The man in charge, Reaux, would command her much like an animal in front of stunned crowds who could not believe her “unusual” body. She had no rights over her body and no say in how she worked. She was only able to cover herself with a small cloth and otherwise was completely naked. 

During this time, Sarah was poked and prodded by various scientists in order to be “examined” due to her “unnatural” appearance and ultimately was used to “prove” that Africans were of a lesser race. Of course, the agenda and examinations were not consented  by Sarah. She also became a victim of sexual abuse and violence, which has led many to believe that she developed a drinking problem as a result.

I wish there was a happy end to this story, but there is not. Sarah died at the age of 26 in 1816. The cause of her death is still unknown to this day. After her death, her body was dissected and displayed in numerous museums, without her consent, until 1972. Eventually, Nelson Mandela called for her remains to be repatriated and brought back to South Africa, where she was finally laid to rest in 2002.

[bf_image id="w7vnfcrrnbt6xnv88r3nbkk"] The thing that angers me the most about Sarah’s story is how she was denied autonomy over anything in her life. Not only did she lack any rights to govern her own body during her life, but she had no rights to it even after death. That is what strikes me the most. After enduring so much pain and hardship at such a young age, surely the right thing to do would be to lay her to rest properly. She wasn’t even afforded that basic right.

Since we just came out of women's history month, I wanted to highlight a few women whose stories have been lost to time. I think Sarah’s story is particularly relevant  today because women of color continue to be taken advantage of across the world, particularly white men in positions of power. It hurts me to know that this issue still exists today, as women all over the world have had to continue to fight for their rights to their own body. Sarah’s story is unfortunately, not unique as we continue to hear the stories of women who have been assaulted, and whose bodies have been abused. Looking through hashtags such as #metoo, and reading essays by women who are survivors allows us to acknowledge that problem that exists in this world. A really poignant statistic that I will always remember is that 97 percent of women in their lifetime will experience some sort of sexual harassment or assault. This number astounded me when I first saw it spreading across instagram infographics last month. This has to change, we shouldn’t have to worry about locking our cars as soon as we get in them, or carrying pepper spray everytime we walk around a dark corner. This awareness can start as small as educating yourself about women’s issues, particularly WOC. If you have the opportunity, take a women and gender studies class at your school, donate to organizations that help battered women, partake in a quick google search figuring out how you can play a role in stopping this cycle. Understanding women’s experiences is so necessary in ensuring that Sarah Baartman’s story is never forgotten, and more importantly never repeated. 

 

Shobha Joneja is a writer for the SCU chapter of HerCampus! She is currently a freshman and is studying Anthropology and Sociology. She is passionate about history, fashion, and current issues and can’t wait to read and write cool articles!
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