Sara Bartman and the 19th Century Colonial Perspective on Black Female Identity

Essay submission for my Gender, Sexauality, and Politics course at the University of Cape Town located in South Africa.

Called a “heavy-arsed heathen” and “fat-arsed female” by early white male authors in their ‘discoveries’ of Sara Bartman, the image of Sara Bartman and her significance required a re-awakening or simply a rediscovery. Outraged by their lack of racial and gender sensitivity, Yvette Abrahams, with a strong bias, takes back the story of Sara Bartman, protecting Sara Bartman and her story as if she were a distant relative (Abrahams, 1998: 221). Such a bias is necessary when the literature meant to tell Sara Bartman’s story categorize her in the same way as those in 19th Century Britain did. Furthermore, Abrahams tactfully crafts a piece that takes into account the meaning behind exhibitions like that of Sara Bartman and examines how her exhibition played a pivotal role in changing the way in which Black individuals were perceived. Using Abrahams’ work as a blueprint, I wish to dissect the complex dichotomy of Sara Bartman and discuss how her display in the freak show was used to depict Black feminity as ‘savage.’ To support this argument, I will use the work of Megan Vaughan who in her writings expresses how medicine was used to further the connection between Black women and sexuality.

A modern contradiction to the story of Sara Bartman is a feature story done by Paper Magazine. On their Winter 2014 cover it read, “Break The Internet – Kim Kardashian.” After being introduced to Sara Bartman in Abrahams’s article, I could not relinquish thoughts of Kim Kardashian “breaking the internet” by willingly posing nude on the cover of an international magazine. The photographer Jean Paul Goude, best known for the iconic photos he took of Grace Jones in the late 1970s, has Kim Kardashian reenact one of his earlier shoots entitled Carolina Beaumont, which showcases a young black woman in an almost impossible position balancing a champagne glass on her buttocks. I include Kim Kardashian and Goude’s work not to distract you from Sara Bartman or her significance, but instead to highlight the stark difference in the depiction of each image. Kim Kardashian—a half white, half Armenian sex symbol—glorified and surgically imitated by other women because of her large breast and buttocks, while almost two centuries before her you have Sara Bartman, who was revealed to the world as a part of a freak show and described as a ‘savage’ by her colonizers for her very image.

Sara Bartman was born in the Eastern Cape during the early 1790s. A Khoisan woman, Sara Bartman was later taken to London, England to be exhibited as a part of the freak show for what her captives believed to “abnormally” large buttocks, which was thought to be specific to Khoisan women (Abrahams, 1998: 220). While there are some debates on whether or not Sara Bartman was a slave, Abrahams points out that if one were to look at the time of Sara Bartman’s birth and the height of Khoisan slavery in South Africa, it would become evident that she were in fact a slave (Abrahams, 1998: 223). Thus, the images of Sarah Bartman represent multiple meanings. For instance, in many of the illustrations of Sarah Bartman, she is shown as having been exhibited naked. Abrahams characterizes these depictions as a “nightmare” for Sara Bartman as they symbolize a false truth to her identity and that of Black people. In addition, research shows that Sara Bartman opposed being seen nude and continually avoided all opportunities to be shown naked. Despite her actual opposition, penny prints and other advertisements revealed to the world a naked enslaved Black woman (Abrahams, 1998: 224). Thus, the colonizers who created and distributed the penny prints for the general public perpetuated this pseudo identity, ultimately leading to the misrepresentation of Sara Bartman and a misguided perception of Black women.

The freak show during the 19th Century was a gathering place for middle class white people to gawk and look at what they perceived to be the not normal or “other.” It was there that the privileged could take a break from the complex nature of the arts and engage in an activity that required little effort. Furthermore, the exhibits of white individuals at these freak shows differed greatly from that of the Blacks. “White freaks” were fully clothed during their exhibits and were seen as oddities due to their physical differences from others within their race. In juxtaposition to this concept of an “oddity” is how Blacks were on display solely for being Black, and were to dress in pieces of cloth that barely covered their genitalia to give the illusion that they were naked. Black exhibits were created specifically by the British to make its subjects seem as though they were animal like or bestial and inferior, which further impacted the psyche of those around and ultimately affect the perception of Black people during this time (Abrahams, 1998: 225). Sarah Bartman too became a victim of British imperialism and was seen as a lesser human being in the minds of her colonizers. By them showcasing her silhouette and distributing nude prints of her, they sought to oppose the conservative nature expected of white women.

Thus, her image became associated with sexuality and public indecency, which drove the wedge between Black and white women further apart during the 19th Century (Abrahams, 1998: 226). Why is it that Sarah Bartman, a young woman, fell victim to sexual objectification and was seen as the “sexualized savage?” Before the time Sarah Bartman’s exhibition in London, Black men held a place within society as working men and were entertainers. Their being was not associated with savagery or bestial like their brothers in Africa. Even marrying and having relations with white women, Black men were forming a greater presence in Britain. This, Abrahams notes, gave rise to a moral panic (Abrahams, 1998: 227). As a consequence, though Black men in England could enter a higher class or status, their significance became associated with them being seen as sexual beings and having an affinity for white women. White women, specifically working class women, often reciprocated this attraction and furthered the stereotype of the Black man as a “sexualized beast.” As the number of Blacks in England dwindled at the turn of the 19th Century, this embodiment was utilized as a tool to highlight that even Black men had a preference for white women over their own bestial women. Black women gained the characterization that they were more ‘savage’ than the men within their racial group and became synonymous with sexuality (Abrahams, 1998: 229). White women on the other hand, were now being socially denied the right to express themselves sexually. This created a division amongst the two classes of women, one ‘civilized’ and the other a ‘sexual beast’ who could not help it because it was her nature to be that very thing. Caricatures of nude white women during this time would have never been allowed to circulate, however, for Sara Bartman, her exhibition advertisements and caricatures were passed around readily painting her as a symbol of sexuality and “savagery.” Even after white women in the 19th Century tried to mimic the shapes of Black women in their fashions as a sign of beauty, their image in society was still seen as innocent and pure. The white colonizers then used science to validate their oppression of the Black woman’s humanity and their place in society. Thus, Black feminity was unable to escape the “sexualized savage” label and Sara Bartman and those before her would remain a figure of the freak show to be analyzed and dissected by their very oppressors (Abrahams, 1998: 230).

Like Abrahams, Vaughan also writes about the sexual labels attached to Black femininity. In the opening of her paper, she describes Sigmund Freud and the ‘colonial encounter’ in Africa. She explains that this ‘encounter’ and the colonists’ discourse itself was sexualized. Furthermore, African sexuality was central to colonial psychology and psychiatry. During this time, she explains, there were two perceptions of African sexuality. The first was that of missionaries who believed African sexuality was “primitive, uncontrolled, and excessive.” The other view consisted of those that thought African sexuality itself was innocent. This body thought that by changing the social and economic structure within Africa, it was only then that they would become less sexual as a people (Vaughan, 1991: 129). Moreover, Vaughan uses the aforementioned views to transition her focus to how sexually transmitted diseases in colonial Africa provided the grounds for a direct biomedical discourse in particular parts of Africa. East and Central African women and their sexuality became the focal point of the research revolving around sexually transmitted diseases. Colonialists examining the spread of syphilis during the 19th Century thought Black women symbolized uncontrolled sexuality. They compared the qualities of Black women, whose actions they deemed were primitive, to those of a prostitute. Believing that the two were almost one in the same, this colonial perspective spread throughout, oftentimes leaving out Black women’s gender or humanity and referring to them as Black females. Vaughan argues that Freud’s work helped to further this discourse. She expresses that during this time, women were to be mothers and not explore their sexuality (Vaughan, 1991: 130). Black ‘females’ to colonizers were unable to separate themselves from their sexuality. In her piece, Vaughan quotes Frantz Fanon who states the colonizer’s ‘Black myth’ revolves around the idea that “With the Negro, everything takes place at the genital area” (Vaughan, 1991: 131).

Thus, as the incidence of syphilis in certain areas grew, who was to blame became the question. One of the first writers on the matter was Colonel Lambkin, who argued that Christianity and Black women was to blame for the outbreak of syphilis in Buganda. He believed that because missionaries ‘freed’ Black women from their ‘cult of feminity’ and the traditional systems that once governed them, they were then let loose to engage in sexual desires. In a traditional patriarchal society, he thought, women would have been controlled and not allowed to be sexual. In addition, he stated that the missionaries “unleashed uncontrollable female sexuality” and these “female animals with strong passions” were now able to express their sexuality and desires, ultimately leading to the spread of syphilis (Vaughan, 1991: 133). The opposing view from missionaries in defense of Christianity and their practices, blamed polygyny. Their argument stressed the sinfulness of polygyny and how the ‘innate’ nature of African cultures was to sin. Thus, they connected the spread of syphilis to the sinful ways of those in the societies and God making them suffer as a result of that (Vaughan, 1991: 136).

Removing the intersectionality of race for a brief moment, female sexuality was consistently being targeted or seen as something to be controlled. One author wrote, “Female sexuality would take centuries to tame” (Vaughan, 1991: 139). Two centuries later, women are still “expected to aspire to marriage” and young girls are taught “that they cannot be sexual beings,” says Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (TEDxEuston, 2013). Women’s sexuality is consistently being looked at through a marginalized lens, which becomes more constricted and derogatory when looking at Black women specifically. Black women were considered “doubly dangerous,” firstly, because they were Black and secondly, because they were female, which placed them at the bottom of the respectable and ‘civilized’ society (Vaughan, 1991: 139). Modern science proves that the claim Blacks were genetically programmed to have higher sex drives is absolutely false, yet during the colonial period, scientist would allow their bias to determine this was true. Sara Bartman’s body was kept on display at the freak show in London and papers spread of Black women being the cause of the ‘syphilis epidemic’ in Central and East Africa, colonizers continued to research and analyze the Black woman. The abolitionist movement would look to cease the exploitation of Sara Bartman, but even in their defense of her, they insulted her intelligence. Were their intentions genuine? One can assume they were not based on the mud slinging in Buganda. Furthermore, they painted Sara Bartman out to be helpless or childlike, implying that she needed ‘saving’ in order to be ‘civilized.’ Thus, like those that had enslaved and put her on exhibit in London, they insinuated the sexual nature of Sara Bartman and that image represented something far different than the Victorian proper women who were to have no sexual desire or affinity for pleasure (Abrahams, 1998: 234). Following their loss to free Sara Bartman, Sara Bartman would later be moved to Paris where she would become a scientific exploration. While taken out of the freak show, the image of Sara Bartman would linger as a figure within society to widen the gender and class gap between Black and white women. In addition to her image, “scientific sexism” ensured that Sara Bartman remain a statue of the ‘savage’ and continued to perpetuate her significance in shaping the colonial view of Black feminity.

When I first began this paper, I questioned whether or not the system that had painted Sara Bartman and others like her as ‘savage’ still exists today. The 19th Century depiction of the “sexualize savage” Black woman has since been reincarnated into derogatory slurs like ‘whore’ or ‘slut.’ White women like Kim Kardashian are able to surgically enhance their bodies without the tag of ‘savage’ and are able to cross over into higher socioeconomic groups with ease, while Black women are still scorned by the images that once shaped their very existence. The ‘colonial encounter’ is now embedded into systematic oppression, which continually tries to limit Black feminity and dictate what is and is not appropriate. Abrahams and Vaughan in their works describe this oppression during the 19th and 20th Century and with a look at the current cultural climate shed light on topics that are still relevant today. Reshaping the colonial discourse, we have not forgotten about Sara Bartman or our past and must redefine what Black feminity looks and feels like. In order to do so, Black women must embrace their past and redefine what Black feminity looks like to them. Thus, with this confidence they can escape the colonial and imperial mentality. While the imperialist mind-set may have portrayed Black women then to be “sexualized savages,” it took an extremely strong woman like Sara Bartman to stand up tall as a part of an exhibit in the freak show. They repeatedly attacked her humanity and identity as a woman. To endure such ridicule and be the focus of a ‘societal endemic’ in that she represented the antithesis of what colonialist deemed as proper or ‘civilized,’ Sarah Bartman is a champion of triumph. Because of her, we now know despite the opinions formed by others that Black feminity is beautiful, Black feminity is intelligent, and Black feminity is powerful.

Works Cited

Abrahams, Yvette. “Images of Sarah Bartman: Sexuality, Race, and Gender in Early Nineteenth-century Britain.” Nation, Empire, Colony: Historicizing Gender and Race. Indiana University Press, 1998. 220 – 236, Print.

TEDxEuston. (2013, April). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: We should all be feminists [Online Video]. Available from: [Accessed: 7 April 2016]

Vaughan, Megan. “Syphilis and Sexuality: The Limits of Colonial Medical Power.” Curing their Ills. Polity Press, 1991. 129 – 154, Print.

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