Saartje Baartman was born to a Khoisan family in the Gamtoos Valley in what is now the Eastern Cape of South Africa. This is the Afrikaans form of her name; her original name is unknown. "Saartje" translates as "Little Sarah".
Baartman was working as a slave for a farmer in Cape Flats near Cape Town when she was sold to British Navy surgeon William Dunlop , who convinced her that she could earn money in Europe. She left for London in 1810.
She travelled around England showing what Europeans considered her "unusual" bodily features, thought to be typical of Hottentots. She had very large buttocks, steatopygia, which was considered both strange and titulating. Her exhibitors permitted visitors to touch her buttocks for extra payment. During this time she was baptized and given the name Sarah Bartmann.
British abolitionists failed to free her since she had come to country of her own free will, had a legal contract, and was paid a salary. However, the uproar forced her keepers to move her to Paris in 1814. There she appeared in an animal show and allegedly became an alcoholic.
When Baartman died in 1816, at age 26 and a peniless prostitute, French scientist Georges Cuvier conducted an autopsy, and her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were placed on display in Paris Musee de l'Homme until 1985.
There were sporadic calls for the return of her remains beginning in the 1940s but the case became prominent only after US biologist Stephen Jay Gould published an account The Hottentot Venus in the 1980s. When Nelson Mandela became a president of South Africa, he formally requested that France return the remains. After much legal wrangling and debates in the French National Assembly, France acceded to the request on 6 March 2002.