On 29 December 1815 a sad young girl died in Paris, thousands of miles from her South African homeland. She was just 25 years old, and her brief life speaks volumes about contemporary European attitudes towards race and ethnicity. Even in death she was denied dignity and respect – her remains were pickled, boiled and otherwise preserved so that audiences could gawp at her in death, just as they had done in life.
Her name ‘Saartjie’, pronounced “Sahr-kee”, was a diminutive version (in Dutch) of ‘Sarah’, given to her by Dutch settlers after she had been orphaned when her village was raided. Her mother had previously died when Saartje was two years old. She was eleven years old when her father was killed in 1800. Six years later another raid resulted in the death of her intended husband, at her betrothal ceremony. Saartje was taken in by a Dutch settler called Peter Cezar at his home near Cape Town, and appears to have been kept as a house slave. She was tiny – about four feet seven inches tall, but bright. She learned to speak Dutch and, in due course, English and some French in addition to her native tongue. Apparently she was also musically gifted, but these were not the attributes which interested Peter Cezar’s brother Hendrick, nor indeed a man called Alexander Dunlop. He was a ship’s doctor who regularly supplemented his income by supplying wild animals to menageries and travelling shows in Britain and Europe. Together they hit upon the plan of bringing the young girl to Britain – to be exhibited in freak shows. Why? Because of the size of her buttocks. There was also great interest in her because women of her tribe, the Khoikhoi, were rumoured to have enlarged genitalia. Here was a savage who could be forced to dress in the flimsiest of garments, and who would be thrust into a tiny cage where Europeans could come and gaze – and prod and feel. For those voyeurs, the entrance fee of a couple of shillings was money well spent.
She had arrived in London in 1810 and immediately attracted the attention of the abolitionists, who lobbied for her to be set free. But Hendrick Cezar brandished a contract (written in Dutch) when the case came before the Court of King’s Bench in November 1810. The contract suggested that Saartje had freely consented to being displayed, in return for being paid a derisory twelve guineas a year. More to the point, and for whatever reason, Saartje herself denied that she was being co-erced, and refuted allegations of sexual abuse. The court had no choice but to throw out the case, and she continued to be exhibited in degrading peep shows, where she was advertised as the Hottentot Venus. The court decision merely added to the public appetite to view this “negro freak”, and a contemporary caricature likens her to a midget (“Miss Ridsdale only 30 Inches high” ) and an albino (“Miss Harvey the Beautiful Albiness with Silk hair perfectly white and pink Eyes!” ) who were being exhibited at the same time.
For the next three years she was trailed around the country, appearing at public exhibitions at 225 Piccadilly, at Bartholomew Fair and at the Haymarket in London, and around Ireland. She also attended private viewings for the wealthy, where the observers were permitted more intimate inspection, before her contract was sold to a Frenchman. She was taken to Paris in around September 1814, and by now was being kept in appalling conditions, more appropriate to an animal. Her health deteriorated but she continued to attend exhibitions until just days before her death on 29 December 1815. The cause of death was variously given as smallpox, pneumonia – or syphilis (although there is no evidence to suggest that she had resorted to prostitution).
In death she was denied all dignity: her remains were kept for scientific research and public display, with pseudo-scientific papers being written seeking to establish the superiority of the Europeans over their African counterparts.It was only when the French government received a request from Nelson Mandela in 1994 that serious consideration was given to awarding Saartjie a proper burial. For years the French government considered the South African request, no doubt worried that it would establish a precedent which might be applied to other remains and artefacts which had come to France from overseas, but in March 2002 her remains were handed over to the South African authorities and she was buried near her homeland in the Eastern Cape on Women’s Day, 9 August 2002. This picture shows her gravestone.
Much has been made of the alleged similarity between Saartje and Kim Kardashian – a somewhat erroneous comparison given that the unlovely Kardashian’s over photo-shopped image was done for money. She (KK) is a talentless bimbo who is happy to manipulate her image and be paid vast amounts to display her derriere, and much besides. Saartje never knew the meaning of freedom, let alone wealth, and her miserable, brief, existence helps remind us that the Georgian era was cruel, racist and heartless.
My interest is in seeing how caricaturists latched onto Saartje’s posterior as a commentary on contemporary events – the “broad bottomed” approach to government was much in the news. Lord Grenville, renowned for his fat rump, and the Whig coalition, known as the ‘broad bottoms’ were constantly being talked about, and commentators revelled in making comparisons with the unfortunate Saartje.
I had first seen Saartje’s image on a pedestal in this caricature by William Heath ridiculing the corpulent George IV – her “excessive posterior” was being used as a counterweight to the “excessive girth” of the matching figure of the King on the opposite pedestal.
Here are a couple more references to her:
The British Museum site here has at least half a dozen other caricatures in which Saartje appears as a background figure. At the time she may have been a figure of fun, an object of ridicule. Now, two centuries later, you have to feel sadness for a poor young woman who died alone, thousands of miles from home.