Saartjie “Sara” Baartman, a South African woman with prominent physical features that led to her being displayed in freak shows in London and Paris, and who for many represented Europe’s view of Africans as sexually savage and racially inferior.
Baartman’s story is a tragic tale of colonialism, and one of the more egregious examples of the West’s exploitation of black women’s bodies. Her body had value because it was considered exotic, like any other animal housed in a cage at the zoo. Baartman was likely the first African woman many Londoners had ever seen, and the circus display helped reinforce their ignorant notions of Africans’ inferiority and savagery. Once in Paris, against her will she to mimic savagery and expose her body, first in carnivals, then in the aristocratic salons, later on among the libertines and finally in brothels where she ends up being a prostitute. In the meantime, French anatomists will have taken an interest in her unusual anatomy (enormous buttocks and labia) only to declare her the missing link from ape to man. She died in 1815 alone, of a combination of pneumonia and venereal disease. A plaster cast of her body were put on display at the « Museum of Man » in Paris, where they remained as late as 1975 before being returned to her home country in 2002.