A tragic and lonely life

2009-03-04 00:00

This book, subtitled A Ghost Story and a Biography, is by two American academics with historical and women’s-studies leanings, and is a thoroughly researched and extremely fascinating (if often painful) account of the life of Sara Baartman and the myths that grew up around her.

In 2002 the remains of this iconic woman were finally buried at Hankey in the Eastern Cape after extensive negotiations between various South African and French bodies, mostly governmental, some cultural and scientific. Baartman’s extraordinary life and her lonely death, probably from pneumonia, in Paris in 1815 are not easily reconstructed, but the two authors of the book have done a thorough and sympathetic job on this bitty material.

The story of Baartman’s literal and metaphorical journey from being a Khoekhoe baby in the Camdeboo Plain in the Karoo, via various periods of virtual slavery in domestic households in the Eastern Cape and Cape Town, to her becoming a semi-pornographic, part-ethnographic, exhibit in London, Manchester and finally Paris, is so extraordinary that it is an excellent example of “truth being stranger than fiction.” She ended up with all her carefully dissected body parts, alongside her skeleton and a plaster-cast, bottled and on display in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

As for the myth: Baartman came to represent for “civilised” Europeans a kind of “missing link” between animal and human, savagery and culture. She also came to be seen as an embodiment of blatant female sexuality. Her public career exposed her to the curiosity and predations of scientists, exploitative entertainers and the sensation-hungry public. Her story is almost excruciating to read.

Various groups come under fire in this book: Dutch colonial farmers in 18th-century in South Africa (whose brutality is well documented and stomach-churning), whites in general, and dedicated/fanatical (male) scientists with no respect for the dignity of a humble victim of desperate circumstances.

The book is also a mine of engrossing information on historical and social matters, around 1800, in South Africa, London, Manchester and Paris.

The authors of this excellent study sum it all up on page 144: “Always ‘she’ was the Hottentot Venus, never Sara Baartman, always a symbol and never a human being. In the Musée de l’Homme a simple plaque read by millions memorialised an illusion, a spectral being, someone who never existed except in the minds of others.”

David Pike

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