Saartje Baartman: The Exploitation of African Americans

WARNING: This post has many details/obscenity that one could find disturbing
Who is Saartje Baartman? (also known as Sara Baartman)
A couple of weeks ago Dr. McCoy mentioned Sara Baartman and her relevance to the class, but I was still curious about this female figure. After some research, I learned that Sara Baartman was someone who lived an uneasy life during the 19th century. She was an African American female that lost her fiancé at the age of sixteen to Dutch colonists. She was taken by the dutch to serve as a domestic servant and later exhibited for entertainment purposes. The contract she “signed” stated that she would receive a portion of the earnings from her exhibitions and then given freedom after five years. The reason she was exhibited by Europeans was because of the shape of her body and “exotic” color of her skin. She had large buttocks and large breasts that instilled curiosity to the white public ranging from places between England and France. The sad reality is that she was objectified and displayed half naked to the public. After being exhibited for about four years in London, she was sold to another white male, Hendrik Cezar, who showcased her with other animals in Paris demonstrating the lack of respect given to her as a human being. Due to the color of her skin, Cezar felt superior and would order her to sit and stand certain ways, treating her like the rest of the animals being showcased alongside.

Due to the anatomy of her body, she attracted scientists, anatomists, zoologists, and physiologists. Many scientists wanted to study her body because they felt as though she was the link between animals and humans. She died at the age of 26 and was still of interest to many scientists. A naturalist by the name of George Cuvier made a cast of her body, dissected her brain, pickled her genitals and then displayed them in jars at a museum. Years later, Sara’s story resurfaced and written about in the book The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. The story of Sara is one that demonstrates racial science and the account of using African Americans as subjects of medical experimentation and amusement. When I think of Sara Baartman, I think about the routine display in the 19th century of black subjects that is talked about in Medical Apartheid. Washington re-sheds a light on the fact that African Americans were used as curiosities at fairs, museums, and zoos, often as part of a “pseudo-darwinian justification for racial discrimination.” Both the stories portrayed in Medical Apartheid and the story of Sara are prime examples that provide a provocative answer to the question of how disparity between race and medicine came to be.

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