This month, to celebrate Black History Month, Helen Brealey, a volunteer at Manchester Archives, focuses on the notable life of Sarah Bartmann, a member of the South African Khoikhoi tribe.

When Bartmann was brought to Europe in 1810 to be displayed she became an instant success and cause célèbre in popular culture. This year it is 200 years since Sarah Bartmann came to be in the city of Manchester and was baptised at the Collegiate Church – now Manchester Cathedral. Apart from the entry in the Baptism Register on 1st December 1811, her presence in Manchester is unrecorded. There is no archival or printed evidence to shed light on why she was here, what she did or where and for how long she stayed. These are major gaps in the life of Sarah Bartmann that biographers and historians have long-pondered and shall always remain a mystery.

While Bartmann’s time in Manchester is something of a grey area, it is widely acknowledged that in 1810 she was brought to Europe from South Africa by the brother of her employer, Hendrick Cezar and a ship’s surgeon, Alexander Dunlop. Their motive for bringing her was for financial gain and they aimed to exhibit her in public shows in London and Paris. From sketches and reports made of her for the study of eugenics we know she had the body features characteristic of some Khoisan women, notably an elongated labia and steatopygia. These features secured her position amongst other fascinating, exotic curiosities on show at the time. Despite the passing of the 1807 Slavery Abolition Act and protest in court from the abolitionist African Association the exhibition of her body continued for the next five years.

Many contemporary newspapers reported on the court case which came to the fore after complaints were made about Bartmann’s display. Following the initial trial on the 24th November 1810 the Morning Chronicle, a London paper, reported two days later that a statement must be obtained from Bartmann in her own language – Low Dutch – to ascertain whether her consent had been given to come to England and be displayed (1). Not long after, on the 1st December 1810 the Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser, for Lancashire, Westmorland, &c reported that a writ of Habeas Corpus would not be issued following her statement in which she claimed “that she was under no restraint, and was very happy in her situation, her master being very kind to her.” (2) As a result of her testimony, the case was soon dropped and we assume she continued to be displayed. While many agreed it was inhumane and racist to exhibit Bartmann as a curiosity, it was frequently commented that it was the affront to decency which people found more distasteful.

For the next year there are no reports of Sarah Bartmann’s activities in newspapers until her baptism at Manchester Cathedral on 1st December 1811.

Here is a photograph showing the Baptism register entry:

Sarah Bartmann's baptism at Manchester Cathedral on 1st December 1811

Transcription(3) – Sarah Bartmann a female Hottentot from the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope, born on the Boarders of Cafraria, baptised by permission of the Ld Bishop of Chester in a letter from his lordship to Jos. Brookes, chaplain. December 1st 1811. No. 2689

Almost three weeks later, the Liverpool Mercury mentions her baptism in ‘Births, Deaths, Marriages and Obituaries’.(4) What is strange is that Sarah must have spent some time in Manchester and yet despite her infamy there is no mention of her in the local press. Crais and Scully suggest that in Manchester, Sara and Alexander likely found accommodation in the Strangeways district where there was a small community of “black Mancusians”, former seamen who had come to Manchester via Liverpool.(5)

As she was not a member of a local parish special permission for her baptism had to be obtained from the Bishop of Chester, which must have taken some time. During this period of waiting she was not alone here as a week later Dunlop signed for a copy of her baptism certificate at the Collegiate Church. Nevertheless, although at this time there were three Manchester papers – the Manchester Mercury, Gazette and Chronicle – her presence was overlooked and after searching a few months either side of her baptism in the Manchester Mercury tabloid at Chetham’s library, there is no mention of her at all. Was it perhaps a crisis of belief, or the pressures of Christian propriety that led to her to be baptised? Again Crais and Scully and also Rachel Holmes (6) have guessed that perhaps Sarah was pregnant or looking to be married. These questions only add to the mystery of why Manchester’s Collegiate Church was the site for her baptism at the hands of Joshua Brookes, and her motives and experiences in between the lines of the newspapers can only be imagined. What is clear is that her baptism and the certificate she received certainly meant a great deal to her. When she died in 1815/6 in Paris aged around 26, the certificate was found on her person folded into a tiny square.

In writing about Sarah Bartmann I wanted to use archival and contemporary evidence as much as possible to reflect her life and activities. In the first instance I wanted to see Bartmann’s entry in the baptism register, a hefty volume spanning several years. Luckily for the less intrepid researcher the date has already been discovered within it’s pages and written about in biographies, so I went to Chetham’s library to view and photograph it. Chetham’s is the point of entry for viewing the Cathedral’s archives. Aside from biographies etc., a search on quickly brings up her name if you know the right spelling (her surname is often spelled Baartman). As I spoke more with the librarian at Chetham’s about the article he suggested I search through their bound copies of the Manchester Mercury which was a fascinating read, full of advertisements and tales of woe, but without the information I wanted.

Another excellent resource I used was the British Library’s digitised collection of 19th Century newspapers and searching for ‘Hottentot Venus’ rather than her actual name brought up a variety of articles. They illustrated her societal and cultural visibility and also how even after her death she was used to exemplify other people and similar cases. Finally I referred to two recent and very eloquent biographies, one which was loaned to me and the other which I read at the Manchester Room at City Library, to gain a deeper insight to her life.


1) The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Monday, November 26, 1810; Issue 12963. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

2)  The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser, for Lancashire, Westmorland, &c. (Lancaster, England), Saturday, December 01, 1810; Issue 494. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

3) Register of Baptisms 1807-1813, Manchester Cathedral archive, MS 15/7 (MFPR 19)

4) Liverpool Mercury etc (Liverpool, England), Friday, December 20, 1811; Issue 25. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

5) Crais, C. & Scully, P., Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A ghost story and a biography. (Princeton University Press: Princeton & Oxford) 2009. p. 106

6) Homes, R., The Hottentot Venus: the life and death of Saatjie Baartman (Bloomsbury, London) 2007. p. 115

There are more black history resources to be found on Manchester City Council website which add to our understanding of the early presence of black people in Manchester, for example the Story of Juba Royton and links to other resources.