In the early 1800’s the Dutch occupied South Africa. As future history showed, the Dutch have not treated the indigenous population kindly then and up into the late 20th century. In general, the attitude at that time was very imperialist, and Europeans in general took a condescending and dim view of anyone who wasn’t westernized. This led to some pretty stark ethical breeches by today’s standards and one particular case stands out among the rest:
Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman was a native African person in Dutch South Africa belonging to the Khoikhoi people, also known as the “Hottentots”, a name given to them by the Dutch for what they thought their language sounded like. She was exhibited in freak shows as a “savage” for her incredibly large butt! (“Saartjie” is the Dutch diminutive of Sarah, a pet name for her). She was nicknamed the “Hottentot Venus” and exhibited in England and France as well as in South Africa. In South Africa, she lived in Cape Town and worked for a man called Hendrik Cesars. She was a wet nurse for his family and then exhibited by him. In England, controversy ensued as even in the early 1800’s, many were shocked at the dehumanizing spectacle she was put through.
Cesars would keep her in a cage and attach a leash to a collar she wore. He would parade her around like a wild animal with a whip and she was instructed to act like an aggressive animal too. She wore tight fitting translucent clothing to reveal her large butt and “savage” features. At the end of the show, he’d even let the audience touch her butt for extra pay! Many thought the show quite dehumanizing! England abolished slavery not long before she was shown in 1810 (slavery was abolished in 1807), so many did feel it bordered on being slavery. The African Association who were abolitionists took the most offense to the shows she was in and brought it to the English courts! However, the courts decided to drop the case when she testified to participating in the shows of her own free will, which was most likely coerced out of her by Cesars. In France though, she had an even rougher time, and was essentially a slave there even more than in England. In France scientists studied her to look for evidence of European superiority by judging her large butt and elongated labia as evidence of inferiority to Europeans!
Sarah Baartman died at the young age of 26 in 1815 possibly due to a disease such as syphilis or pneumonia. Some theorize alcoholism as well, but no one did an autopsy to confirm anything despite doing a dissection. Her sexual organs, skeleton and brain were put on exhibit in France until the 1970’s, but her remains were eventually repatriated to South Africa in 2002 after they pressured France. Her legacy today represents the exploitation that when on by Europeans of native peoples who they thought were inferior. There was an interesting movie made about her story in 2010 called ” Vénus Noire” on YouTube that I found quite fascinating!
The film really captures the dehumanizing treatment she endured and the exploitation. She was clearly unhappy and did not like to be paraded around and poked and prodded. Hendrik Cesars clearly manipulated her by guilt tripping her into performing. I am all for taking things in historical context and not letting our modern values cloud how we see history, but it was hard to watch how he treated her in the performances. I thought he was quite rough with her, and it would have been better if he was more gentle during the shows. He was also very abusive toward her off stage as well. If she were a wild animal, I wouldn’t blame her one bit for being agitated and want to lash out! Cesars shouldn’t even handle a real wild animal, in my opinion! I was surprised though how progressive England was on the matter though, in real life and in the movie. It was nice to see some people try to speak up for her, even though it was to no avail. As for the racially biased scientists in France, we now know they were wrong, but at the time one should keep in mind that was the general view of the day, that physical features could be indicators in intellect and civilized behavior. It was true they helped exploit her, and dehumanize her, but I consider them more a product of their time period than deliberately abusive like Cesars. Overall, her life was tragic and cut too short. She was unhappy and abused by Cesars, and that’s why I’m so saddened by her story, more than the attitudes of the time period.
No one, including me, wants to ever see that side of history repeated in the Western world again, but in some ways, we swung too far the other way. Many anthropologists now have to walk on eggshells to study indigenous peoples due to the gross injustices that were once carried out back then. True, we never want to repeat those injustices again, but now we cannot seem to study indigenous peoples more frankly in fear of being “politically incorrect” and coming to conclusions deemed “insensitive”. I do not find that it was wrong for scientists to want to study her, or her people, but nowadays, we should do it with humility off any pedestal of superiority. The most progressive thing in my opinion for anthropologists to do is to study the culture and behaviors of the people without the judgement and bias of the past scholars. I understand though, too, that the scientists back in Sarah’s time followed the beliefs and conventions of their day, as we do ours. I give them the scholarly courtesy of not adding our own cultural bias in judging their actions, even though they wouldn’t have! Who knows what we are getting wrong? I think Sarah Baartman serves as an example of how NOT to study another people!
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