Why I tell the story of Saartjie Baartman


Many Europeans don’t understand white guilt.

For years I lived in the UK, where I was lambasted for being a South African, judged as particularly racist for my white-blonde hair and too pale skin (apparently the paler you are as a South African, the more racist the blood that flows through your veins – who knew?), and yet most of the people I met from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales had no particular guilt about the sins of the British Empire on the darker-skinned people of the world. In spite of the presence of the British empire in South Africa, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (Sudan), Basutoland (Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana), British East Africa (Kenya), British Somaliland, (northern Somalia), British Togoland (eastern Ghana), British Cameroons (split between Nigeria and Cameroon), British Egypt, Colonial Nigeria, Rhodesia (Zambia), Nyasaland (Malawi), Sierra Leone, South-West Africa (Namibia), Swaziland, Tanganyika Territory (mainland Tanzania), Uganda Protectorate, Sultanate of Zanzibar (insular Tanzania), India, Burma, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and a plethora of places in the Middle East and the Asia Pacific, there seems to be little white guilt, and if anything, a great deal of national pride and an idea that their time in occupancy in these countries was for “their own good” if anything.

I’m picking on the Brits now, but the Belgians, Dutch, Danish (yes, the Danish), French, Germans, Italians, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedes, US Americans and others had their fair share of colonies and misdeeds in lands where skins were dark and behaviours were decidedly non-European (and therefore – obviously – uncivilised).

My point is that whilst I am painfully conscious of my whiteness and my privilege and the weight of the unacceptable actions of my ancestors, folks in Europe tend to be rather obvious and somewhat dismissive of claims from their one-time colonies who request help or demand compensation for century-old grievances.

Perhaps it was my white guilt or my concern that so many seemed to have no white guilt that inspired me to tell the story of Saartjie Baartman in my evening of African Fireside tales.

Saartijie’s story

Her story is a short one – the records about her life are minimal:

Born circa 1789 (the year of the French revolution) to a Khoisan family in the eastern part of the Cape Colony, she worked for some years in Cape Town as a maid and wet nurse, before moving to England in 1810 temporarily at the behest of an English surgeon who happened to dabble in exporting unusual animals and the odd slave or two to the homeland. The idea was to exhibit herself and make money (her buttocks were remarkable, not European – or perhaps even human – at all, or so they say), then move home. She became the “Hottentot Venus”, but years passed and in 1814 she was not only still in Europe but had moved to Paris where she was apparently sold to an animal trainer and exhibited in fairs. There she caught the eye of none other than Napoleon’s surgeon, Georges Cuvier, founder and professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History. He found her interesting and examined her for proof of a so-called missing link between animals and human beings. Some records indicate that she took to drink to live with herself, and then prostitution to survive. At the age of 25/26, she died in France in December 1815, of an inflammatory disease or perhaps syphilis.

A sad story, to be sure, but one not dissimilar to many working class women across Europe at the time.

A death, but not the end

Where the story takes a particularly unpleasant turn is after her death. Georges Cuvier conducted a dissection of her corpse, then took a plaster cast of her body, placed her genitals and her brain in jars of formaldehyde, and strung up her skeleton on a frame. The cast, bottled genitals and brains, and skeleton were to hang in various French museums, gawped at by millions who compared her to the “missing link” until French women complained about the exhibits being “anti-feminist” – not anti-human, mind you – and they were taken down.

And then? Well, Saartjie’s remains were taken to a dusty storage cupboard, where they remained until 1994 when Nelson Mandela opened conversations with the French government to get her remains returned. It took 8 years. 8 years to return a body because the French government was concerned that if they released one “treasure”, there would be calls to release more.
On the 6th of March, 2002, she returned to South Africa and her remains were interred on Women’s Day on the 9th of August 2002.

I loved telling Saartjie’s story, although I am not black or Khoisan. In these times where we still judge others by their skin colour, where nationalism and racism rear their ugly heads through Europe and the so-called civilised world, I can’t help but ask my audiences: who was the barbarian in this tale? And who the human?

Being conscious that even in recent times, the aristocratic, well-educated and erudite have been guilty of crimes against people simply because of their colour or appearance is, I feel, important. Not to instil guilt, but a sense that we aren’t all “entitled” and to remember that “there but for the grace of G-d go I” (with thanks to John Bradford).

RIP, Saartjie Baartman.

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