The significance of Sarah Baartman

Sarah Baartman is an international icon, synonymous with the commitment to democracy by the South African Government. Baartman, of Khoikhoi descent, was born in 1789 and raised within the Gamtoos Valley in the Sarah Baartman District Municipality and was laid to rest in Hankey along the banks of the Gamtoos River on 9 August 2002.

She became orphaned when her family was attacked in a commando raid and was subsequently taken to Cape Town as a slave. At the age of 20, in 1810, William Dunlop, a British ship’s doctor, took her to London. There she was put on display as a human novelty, due to the fascination of the Europeans with her body shape. Her inhumane treatment was exposed and a court case was brought in her defence by the African Association, an anti-slavery group in London.

When she could no longer be displayed in London, she was sold to an animal trainer in France, who also used her as if she were a circus animal. She died of a respiratory illness in Paris in 1815, after which her body was dissected by a scientist named George Cuvier, Napoleon’s surgeon-general. A body cast was made of her corpse and her body parts were put on display until 1974.

In 1994, President Nelson Mandela appealed to the French Government for the return of the remains of Sarah Baartman from the Musee de l’Homme in Paris. It was only in 2002 that the French Government finally agreed.

On 22 August 2002, the former president, Thabo Mbeki, declared the grave of Sarah Baartman a national heritage site.