Showing posts with label South Africa. Show all posts
Showing posts with label South Africa. Show all posts

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Netherlands (Holland and Dutch) Slavers

Netherlands--The Netherlands despite being a small country, lacking in natural resources, was able in the 17th Century to become the centre for European overseas trade, including the trade in human beings. This 'Dutch Miracle' was a product of numerous innovations in navigation, manufacturing and finance, which allowed for slaves and slave produce to be transported at greater capacity and at lower cost. The first recorded trader sold 20 Africans to the colony of Virginia in North America in 1619, but the Dutch trade only really took off in response to labour shortage in the newly conquered sugar plantations of Northern Brazil in 1630. Wars with Portugal (1620-1655) left the Dutch in control of many of the slave depots on the West African coast, centred on modern Ghana, which by 1650 had dispatched 30,000 slaves to Brazil alone. After the return of the Brazilian colonies to Portugal in 1654, the Dutch traders were able to draw upon their network of forts to supply other European powers, dominating the supply to Spain until the 1690s. However the near constant warfare the Netherlands were waged in with other European nations, such as Spain, France and Britain, by Imperial Spain, did eventually sap its strength, and Dutch involvement in the trade declined in the 18th Century, and effectively ceased in 1795. When the final abolition of the trade and institution of slavery formally occurred in 1863, Dutch agents had brought 540,000 Africans to the Americas and cast the spectre of slavery east, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Indonesian archipelago.

Elmina Castle was erected by the Portuguese in 1482 as São Jorge da Mina

The Dutch-Portuguese Wars --Between 1620 and 1655 the Netherlands and Portugal were at war, a struggle that became increasingly dictated by the needs of the slave trade. The Dutch were late comers to Africa, and their attempts to establish trading posts inevitably led to confrontation with the Portuguese. The Dutch were initially chasing African gold, but after they captured the sugar plantations in northern Brazil, they turned to slavery to help realize its full potential. Plans made to conquer the Portuguese headquarters on the gold coast, São Jorge da Mina, to ensure a steady flow of slaves, were successful and it fell in 1637. The newly renamed Elmina, proved disappointing, but it drove them on to Angola, and the island depot of São Tomé, and gave Dutch slavers a taste of the profit had at the expense of human beings. When Brazil fell in 1654 the trade continued at a pace, with colonies like Curacou emerging as vast slave markets open to the whole Caribbean.

Amsterdam -- Amsterdam was the capital of the Holland, the largest and most important of the Seven Provinces that comprised the Netherlands. The city was already prosperous, but when the southern city of Antwerp fell to the Spanish in 1585, it benefited from a stream of enterprising merchants and wealthy refugees. By the mid 1600s it was the most important trading center in the world, providing a vital supporting role to Caribbean slavery.

West-Indisch Huis (West Indies House) in the centre of Amsterdam was the former headquarters of the Dutch West-Indische Compagnie (West India Company or WIC), which was probably the largest single slave trader in history. The company was chartered in 1621, and provided with a monopoly on the African slave trade that lasted until 1730. This building was occupied from 1621-1647, a period which saw the first of 30,000 slaves arriving in Dutch Brazil, arranged through the WIC.

Runaway black slaves are attacked by dogs by Louise.  Sculpture in carramarmer (to a plaster model of 1869), Nov sculptor Louis Samain. Original model in 1894 by the Belgian State acquired and donated to city of Brussels. In 1895, also date of signature, placed on Avenue Louise. Natural stone octagonal plinth walls with vaulted arch November E. Le Graive. The poignant scene - a black slave with his child being attacked by two watchdogs - is inspired by the famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher-Stowe (1851).
The slave routes required bulk warehousing and transportation for slave produce once it arrived back in the 'Old World', and Amsterdam developed accordingly. Its historic centre retains many of the original tall, narrow and deep warehouses that as part of the colonial boom once bulged with sugar, cotton and tobacco.

In the 17th Century most traded commodities passed through Amsterdam's canals and rested in its warehouses before being traded on. The Commodity Exchange (Beurs, pictured below) was built from 1608-1613 with this fact in mind, becoming so influential that merchants came from all over Europe to set their prices, and to speculate on the goods newly arrived from the Caribbean. These prices would in turn help shape the demand for bonded labour in the various sectors of the slave economy.

Amsterdam ranks as a European capital of slavery. While its mills processed almost all the sugar from the Portuguese colonies, its financiers bankrolled the Danish, Swedish and Brandenburg slave trade, and in turn Scandinavian and German sailors made up half its slaving crews. As home to the world's most sophisticated banking and insurance system, it was the natural home for the expensive and potentially risky business of slaving, and for this reason alone as many as 10,000 vessels were associated with the port.

The Dutch Golden Age--The17th Century has been widely described as the Netherlands' 'Golden Age.' The period saw the flowering of the arts and sciences. The average Dutchman was wealthier than his counterparts in any other country in the world and lived in a relatively tolerant country. This progress was achieved in part at an appalling human cost, and several of era's great advances helped tighten the noose around the African continent.

Amsterdam's Town Hall is perhaps the most significant building from this period, built from 1648-65 and by design the most ambitious and indeed the largest home to any city government in Europe.

The elaborate freeze on the western façade depicts the basis of Amsterdam's wealth. The female personification of the city reaches out for the treasures of Europe (on the left), Asia (on the right), America (far right) and Africa (far left). A cargo ship is shown bring this bounty to the port, the centre of the world, and above the statue of Atlas makes the nation's claim to carrying the world on it shoulders. The Golden Age was the high water mark of Dutch influence, its power and culture a product of these patterns of exploitation.

Zeeland --The ports of Vlissingen and Middleburg in the south-western State of Zeeland became dependent on the slave trade to an unparalleled degree, beating even Amsterdam as the main departure point for slavers. Ships from Zeeland made 672 journeys to Africa, transporting 278,476 people into a life of slavery, compared to the 173 recorded voyages from Amsterdam, carrying 73,476. The two ports were practically slaving communities, and official reports indicated that by 1750 the only significant commercial activity in Vlissingen was the slave trade. 

Middleburg Drawbridge 

This marked quite a transformation for the province, which in 1596 had steadfastly rejected the opening of a slave market in Middleburg, on the basis that Dutch law did not countenance slavery. The momentum that drove slavery brought on a transformation in attitudes within the area, and saw Middleburg ... become host to the largest independent slaving company in the Netherlands. The Middleburg Commercial Company (MCC) transported 31,095 Africans to the Americas between 1732 and 1803, of whom 27,344 survived the crossing. This period map of Middleburg shows the familiar network of canals and docks that marked it out as an efficient and prolific slave port.

In the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean," the Flying Dutchman was a fluyt.

The Fluyt -- Dutch innovation transformed shipbuilding. The Netherlands had to import almost all of its wood from abroad, and to save money found ways of making fast and efficient ships from cheap materials. The Fluyt or 'fly boat' was one such design, based on low quality wood and easily pre fabricated parts, and requiring a much smaller crew than the ships of foreign competitors. This ship became a familiar site throughout Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, and its vast cargo hold and shallow draft made it ideally suited for slave voyages. The nation's talent for shipbuilding encouraged countries across the continent to either borrow Dutch designs, or simply commission fleets to be constructed in Dutch ports. Thanks to vessels like the Fluyt come 1670 the Netherlands had more ships than England, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Scotland put together, boasting the most 'efficient' slave ships afloat.

Maroons of Suriname

The Dutch captured the British colony of Suriname during the Second Anglo-Dutch War(1667), and under the WIC it was developed as a plantation slave society. It was a primary destination for the Dutch slave trade, yet unusually it never experienced a general slave rebellion. The regime was one of extreme and deliberate brutality, even by the standards of the time. Mortality was so high that although 300,000 slaves were imported between 1668 and 1823, the ravaged population was never able to grow beyond a figure of 50,000. 'Maroonage' emerged as the main method of resistance. 

Fugitive slaves, 'Maroons' fled inland, and formed permanent communities. There is nothing unusual about this in any slave society, except for its scope. The Suriname Maroons numbered between 25-47 thousand in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and engaged the Dutch in over 50 years of gureilla warfare. The resistance proved so strong that the colonial government acknowlged their virtual independence in the 1760s. The Scottish-Dutch soldier John Gabriel Stedman witnessed the oppression of the slaves during a campaign against the maroons in 1774. His book a Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, with vivid illustrations by William Blake and Francesco Bartolozzi was taken to heart by abolitionists, through Stedman's real sympathies are thought to have been with reform rather than abolition.

Armed Maroon, Surinam, 1770s, from Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam © The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record


The domestic slave Coffy led a rebellion in the Dutch Colony of Berbice (now British Guyana) in February 1763. An outbreak of yellow fever had left the white slave owners weakened and vulnerable, and the slaves saw a chance to rise. Taking arms, they almost succeeded in their first aim of driving all whites from the colony. Coffy had opted for peaceful coexistence with the former slave masters, and planned to broker a treaty with the authorities like the maroons of Surinam. He fell out with his fellow rebel leaders and committed suicide three months into the rebellion, but his followers continued fighting Dutch forces until April 1764.

New Netherlands (New Netherlands is present day New Jersey and New Holland is present day New York)

In 1623 the WIC were granted permission to establish the province of New Netherland in North America. The Dutch were largely unwilling to become settlers (thanks in part to their relatively comfortable position at home), and the colony developed with large numbers of European workers, particularly from England, Germany and what is now Belgium. The shortage inevitably led the colonists to turn to the slave trade, and in 1625 the first group of 11 African males arrived on Manhattan Island at fort New Amsterdam (now New York). The WIC pinned its hopes on the New Netherland after the loss of Brazil in 1654, and shipments markedly increased. By the 1660s the company was the largest single slave owner in New Amsterdam, forcing their 'property' to build roads, houses and defences. The large wooden perimeter wall they constructed has long since disappeared, but the American financial district 'Wall Street' takes its name and location from these slave craftsmen.

With large numbers of white migrants already working the fields, the demand for slaves came largely from the rapidly urbanising townships. The system was light compared to the extremes of the plantations, and skilled slaves were able to exploit the labour shortage to achieve more freedom. Many had already been specialists in Caribbean colonies, and veterans were able to achieve a state of 'half-freedom' in return for payment to the WIC. This suited the authorities, who were quite happy not to have to clothe and feed the half slaves themselves, but more than prepared to demand their work when they needed them. Because of this relaxed arrangement slaves were more easily assimilated into the colonial culture than elsewhere, but still they preserved and adapted many rituals originating in West Africa. The annual Festival of 'Pinkster' (the Dutch word for Pentecost) blended African and Christian traditions to celebrate the coming of the spring. It was a rare holiday for slaves, an opportunity for African music, dance and storytelling, but also for mockery, as the crowds would mimic the European manners of their masters and elect a king for a day.

Sojourner Truth was enslaved by the Dutch in New York.

The province of New Netherland was captured by Britain in 1664, its slaves having laid the foundations for settlements that would emerge as great cities: New York (New Amstersdam), Philadelphia (Fort Beversrede) and New Jersey (Fort Nassau).

Cape Colony -- The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) was set up in 1602 to trade with Asia, and became the world's most powerful company over the 17th Century. It fed an insatiable European demand for spices, textiles and porcelain, and developed trading posts from throughout Asia, including Japan, China, Iran, India, and Indonesia, again frequently at the expense of the Portugese. It was not directly involved in the transatlantic slave routes (the West India Company's monopoly), but it did own large numbers of slaves. The company's regional headquarters in Batavia (now Jakarta) and Colombo (in Sri Lanka) had about a thousand slaves, mainly from the bay of Bengal. 

Chinese, Indian and European traders provided most of the VOCs bonded labour, but occasionally it organised its own voyages to the East African island of Madagascar for slave raids. The voyage to Asia usually headed around the African coast, and VOC established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope to supply these crews. In 1652 a group under Jan van Riebeeck established the Cape Colony at Table Bay, near Table Mountain in modern South Africa. The VOC were anxious to keep the local Khoi and San populations on friendly terms, and in a matter of weeks van Riebeeck requested slave labour. The administrator favoured Angolans, but the rival WIC made it clear that West Africa and its population was its prize, so the VOC turned east. Slave expeditions left Cape Town for Madagascar and Mozambique, but most headed for Asia, particularly to the Indian coast, Sumatra, Java, the Celebes, Ternate and Timor.

The Castle of Good Hope is the oldest surviving building in South Africa, and was built and used to occupy slaves from 1666 onwards.

VOC slaves sometimes retained a version of their original names (usually with spelling errors by company clerks), but surnames were regularly changed to indicate the country of origin. Hence names like Lisbeth van Bengelen (Lisbeth of Bengal), and Abraham van Batavia, the first slave in South Africa, who was taken from the VOC headquarters. Subsequent generations would bear the name Van de Kaap, 'of the Cape.'

The VOC commissioned a Slave Lodge in 1679 to house around 600 of its slaves, who were forced to share the building with prisoners and the mentally ill. The tree that stood outside the lodge was thought to have been the sight where people from across Africa and Asia were sold into a life of slavery, and a small section of it has been preserved. It is unlikely that this 'Slave Tree' was ever home to a slave market, and some even doubt the remains of the tree are genuine, but it remains a potent symbol. The city of Cape Town planted a new tree in its place in 2002 as a mark of remembrance. (source: Old Anti-Slavery)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Pata Pata by Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba and husband Stokely Carmichael in Conakry, Guinea in 1968

From the BBC: Makeba, known as "Mama Africa", spent more than 30 years in exile after lending her support to the anti-apartheid struggle.

She appeared on Paul Simon's Graceland tour in 1987 and in 1992 had a leading role in the film Sarafina!

Miriam Makeba's Passpor twas revoked. Makeba, was born in Johannesburg on 4 March 1932 and was a leading symbol in the struggle against apartheid.

Stokely Carmichael and Miriam Makeba at Their Wedding Reception in the Spring of 1968, greeting guests. This event took place in the spring of 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Her singing career started in the 1950s as she mixed jazz with traditional South African songs.
She came to international attention in 1959 during a tour of the United States with South African group the Manhattan Brothers.

She was forced into exile soon after when her passport was revoked after starring in an anti-apartheid documentary and did not return to her native country until after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990.

Makeba was the first black African woman to win a Grammy Award, which she shared with Harry Belafonte in 1965.

Charlie Gillett, who presents the BBC World of Music programme, says there is nobody to compare to her, as she was popular in West Africa - after living in exile in Guinea - and East Africa for recording a version of the Swahili song Malaika, as well as her home in South Africa.
She was African music's first world star blending different styles long before the phrase "world music" was coined.

After her divorce from fellow South African musician Hugh Masekela she married American civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael.

It was while living in exile in the US that she released her most famous songs, Pata Pata and the Click Song. "You sing about those things that surround you," she said. "Our surrounding has always been that of suffering from apartheid and the racism that exists in our country. So our music has to be affected by all that."

It was because of this dedication to her home continent that Miriam Makeba became known as Mama Africa. (source: BBC)

Pata Pata by Miriam Makeba

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Medical Ethics and Dr. Wouter Basson

Wouter Basson ran the apartheid-era regime's germ and chemical warfare program, Project Coast. He is charged with manufacturing dangerous drugs, some of which allegedly were used on activists.
From the Los Angeles Times, on 27 September 2011, by Robyn Dixon: Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — In South Africa, they call him "Dr. Death."

Wouter Basson, who ran the apartheid government's secret germ and chemical warfare program, Project Coast, once was accused of trying to create poisons that were lethal only to blacks. He was acquitted by a judge in 2002 of charges that included murder and drug possession.

But more than 20 years after he ran Project Coast, Basson's quiet life as a cardiologist in Cape Town is being threatened.

He is facing an inquiry by the Health Professions Council of South Africa for unethical conduct. If found guilty, he could be struck off the medical roll and lose his right to practice.

Basson is charged with manufacturing dangerous drugs in the 1980s and '90s, some of which allegedly were used on antiapartheid activists abducted by security forces.
He has acknowledged that he was given a free hand and almost unlimited budget to run Project Coast, which designed, tested, manufactured and deployed toxic weapons. He traveled the world, researching biological weapons.

Steven Miles, a medical ethics expert at the University of Minnesota, told a council hearing Tuesday in Pretoria that Basson's work on chemical and germ warfare had violated medical ethics and breached the laws of humanity. Basson's work was repugnant to the conscience of humankind, Miles said.

"The ethical core of medicine is to promote health. Dr. Basson's work risked causing disabilities, deaths and permanent brain damage," Miles said, adding that a doctor's moral duty to save lives was the same in times of peace and war.

Much of what Basson did was top secret. He ran a unit called Delta G, a secret chemical warfare facility that tested 24 different incapacitating agents during his tenure, according to evidence at his 2002 trial.

Basson said at his trial that he had no moral problem creating weapons with tear gas or drugs. But he argued that he was only following orders during the years he worked for the apartheid military, from 1981 to '93.

The health council has dropped several charges against Basson for lack of evidence, including some stemming from the alleged use of South African troops to test drugs such as Mandrax, ecstasy, tear gas and an incapacitating agent, BZ.

He still faces charges before the council involving thousands of mortar bombs allegedly equipped with tear gas, to be sent to Angola, cyanide capsules that would enable apartheid operatives to commit suicide and drugs aimed at disorienting prisoners.

Miles said Basson acted unethically by supplying a paralyzing drug to agents for use in abductions of antiapartheid activists outside South Africa. It was known at the time that the drug, scoline, could cause respiratory failure, muscle damage and kidney failure, he said.

An article Tuesday in the South African newspaper, Daily Maverick, criticized Basson for what it called his lack of remorse.

"He stands up and says he would do it all again, if confronted with the same decisions. As historical figures go, he's pretty unique on that score," the article says. "Because as a man who provided the drugs, the biological weapons, for the apartheid regime, what he did was really horrendous. It was he who literally ran the whole show in the theatre of horror."

Basson told reporters Monday that he just wanted to get on with his job as a doctor.

"I closed this chapter 20 years ago," he said. "All I want is to continue serving the country as a medical professional." (source: Los Angeles Times)

South Africa's Doctor Death, Cardiologist Wouter Basson

From the Irish Times, "South Africa's 'Dr Death' would like the past to stay in the past," by Bill Corcoran on October 2011: CAPE TOWN LETTER: Anti-apartheid activists considered him one of their most ghoulish adversaries but Wouter Basson wants to be let run his medical practice

THE MAN nicknamed “Dr Death” by the South African media over a decade ago for his role as head of the apartheid government’s germ warfare programme began a fight to retain his life as a medical practitioner last week.

Doctor Death, Cardiologist Wouter Basson

Cardiologist Wouter Basson does not strike fear into the heart of most South Africans anymore, but there was a time throughout the 1980s when anti-apartheid activists would have considered him one of their most ghoulish adversaries.

Between 1981 and 1993, Basson was head of Project Coast, the South African army’s top secret biological and chemical warfare programme, where he allegedly oversaw the development of poisons and biological weapons for use against enemies of the state.

Among numerous other things, the 61-year-old was accused of being involved in the creation of poisons that targeted black people, and of administering sedatives to dozens of anti-apartheid fighters then thrown from a plane to their deaths.

In the mid-1990s, when South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission started to investigate his role in Project Coast as part of its efforts to find out what happened security forces’ victims, Basson refused to participate in the process. However, in 1999, he was forced to reveal the extent of his involvement after a total of 67 different criminal charges were brought against him.

The charges related to 229 murders – 200 of which were carried out in Namibia – and conspiracy to commit murder, drug possession, drug trafficking, fraud and the embezzlement of €36 million. During his trial, Basson admitted heading up Project Coast, and that the programme had developed “24 different incapacitating substances . . . over the years”. But he was adamant he was innocent of any wrongdoing, arguing he acted under orders of the South African Defence Force.

Much to the dismay of state prosecutors, after a marathon 30-month trial, Basson was acquitted of all the charges against him and was granted amnesty. In relation to the 200 deaths in Namibia, the judge ruled a South African court did not have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed in other countries.

After the trial, Basson established a private practice in Durbanville, a small town outside of Cape Town, and it appeared that one of South Africa’s most infamous individuals would be allowed to put his past behind him and live out his life in relative peace and quiet.

However, the Health Professions Council of South Africa had other ideas. In 2007, the body brought six charges against Basson relating to whether he breached the medical code of ethics while overseeing Project Coast.

They included allegations that he manufactured mandrax, ecstasy and other drugs to sedate apartheid-era prisoners of the South African Defence Forces.

In addition, he is charged with providing cyanide capsules to security force members for the purposes of committing suicide if captured, and with “weaponising thousands of 120mm mortars with tear gas for use in Angola”.

It has taken the health professions council four years to get Basson to appear before the inquiry, due to his ongoing efforts to thwart the process.

Last year, the Pretoria high court dismissed an application by Basson to have the inquiry halted. Basson wanted the hearing to be found unlawful, unreasonable and unfair. During a break last Monday on the first day of the medical inquiry in Pretoria, he told reporters gathered outside the hearing that, as far as he was concerned, the past should stay in the past. “I closed this chapter 20 years ago,” he said. “All I want is to continue serving the country as a medical professional.”

Whether he gets to do this or not now depends on the council’s ruling in the inquiry. If he is found guilty, the body has the power to revoke his medical licence.

On Monday, Basson confirmed he co-ordinated research for Project Coast, but said he never crossed the ethical boundaries of his profession.

“The accused denies that any unlawful conduct of any nature and/or research or conduct contrary to any relevant convention or rule of the relevant national or international authorities was ever pursued or executed in the project,” he stated in a written explanation.

While a full week of witness evidence has unfolded in the hearing, observers say there is a strong likelihood the case could drag on for months, if not longer, as the ins and outs of medical ethics are presented by witnesses for both sides.

So will Basson’s past eventually catch up with him? Only time will tell. But until the inquiry is finalised, he remains free to continue in the medical profession. (source: Irish Times)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus

From Salon Magazine on 9 January 2007, "Venus abused: In the early 1800s, Westerners leered at Saartjie Bartmaan's curvy body and exotic skin. But do we gawk any less today?" by Marisa Meltzer:

The life story of Saartjie Baartman, the African slave who was displayed in Europe in the early 19th century, contains so many layers of oppression to sort through that author Rachel Holmes begins by trying to untangle her name. In “African Queen: the Real Life of the Hottentot Venus,” Holmes concedes that Saartjie (pronounced “Saar-key,” meaning “little Sara”) might not even be the name she was born with, calling the -tjie diminutive suffix a “racist speech act.” Colonialist roots and all, it “was her name in life as she lived it.”

Baartman was born into the Eastern Cape Khoisan, the indigenous herding tribe that once populated part of South Africa. As a teenager, she was orphaned after her father and fianci were both murdered in a colonial war, and sold to a trader, Pieter Willem Cesars. He took her to Cape Town, where she worked for his brother as a nursemaid. Around 1810, once the family started experiencing economic difficulties, they looked to Baartman as their next source of income, figuring that in Europe, where curiosity about the Dark Continent ran rampant, “a pretty maidservant with notable buttocks and a spotty giraffe skin were a winning combination on which to stake their future.”

They settled in late Georgian London, where freak shows touting “the ne plus ultra of hideousness” or “the greatest deformity in the world” lined Piccadilly. As Holmes points out, England was transitioning from a sentimental primitivism — the noble savage — to the popular Victorian notion of ethnology. With the slave trade being abolished just a few years before and the black population of London at about 20,000, their challenge was to make the investment — Baartman — conform to stereotypes and yet also seem like a novelty. They marketed her as a kind of “scantily clad totem goddess,” the Hottentot Venus, sex incarnate. Hottentots, what European traders called the native Khoisan for the clicking sound of their language, “signified all that was strange, disturbing, alien, and possibly, sexually deviant.”

She was objectified in the most literal sense, put on display in front of gaping crowds six days a week, doing suggestive “native” dancing and playing African instruments. Her costume was a flesh-colored silk sheath deliberately cut like a second skin, with copious jewelry at the seams to conceal the fact that she wasn’t technically naked. They also fashioned her a kind of female codpiece, “the effect of its soft folds, fur fringes, and pendulous extensions was to imply that its purpose was to modestly conceal the supposedly elongated labia of a Hottentot woman” — a subject of great interest and speculation among the gawking masses. She became an instant sensation, a subject of countless life drawings (many of which are included in the book), editorials and political cartoons. The London Morning Post wrote, of her body, that “her contour and formation certainly surpass any thing [sic] of the kind ever seen in Europe, or perhaps ever produced on Earth.”

Holmes is so clearly besotted with her subject that her writing can tend toward the florid when describing her (“to behold the figure of Venus, or to hear her name was to be prompted to think about lust, or love”). Baartman physically exists in the story — the narrative is entirely devoted to her — and yet, since she was unable to read or write, very little exists in her own voice. As her story progresses, that absence becomes more and more notable. But perhaps that’s Holmes’ point: As a slave and as a woman, Baartman never did have any kind of agency in her own life. “Economically, sexually, and racially,” Holmes writes, “she was unfree.”

Her supposed liberation at the hands of abolitionists, who initiated a lawsuit to win her freedom, feels like further commodification from a party interested not in her ultimate well-being, but in drumming up publicity for their own cause. It did earn her a contract, read to her twice in Afrikaans, that covered standard demands like medical treatment, warmer clothes, profit sharing and the promise that she would eventually be sent home. “She was not seen as a sympathetic victim,” writes Holmes, who tries unsuccessfully at this point to sell Baartman as a cunning businesswoman who had “outmaneuvered her managers and made herself attractive to eligible bachelors as a woman of means.”

And while there are a few years in England where she managed to escape the probing public — she was rumored to have gotten married or had a baby, though there is no record of either — the arguably most grim period of her life came after this so-called freedom. In 1814, she and Cesars moved to Paris at the end of the Napoleonic era, where she was examined for three days by scientists at the Museum of Natural History, developed an addiction to alcohol, and, at some point, became a prostitute. She died in Paris of either a respiratory disease or syphilis — the records aren’t clear — at the age of 26. Her death didn’t bring her any dignity, either; her body was cast and dissected and became the property of the Museum of Natural History. Her brain and genitals were kept in bell jars just outside one creepy scientist’s private chambers.

Holmes devotes the last chapter to Nelson Mandela’s campaign to have Baartman’s remains returned to South Africa. It’s a reverent coda to the book, but Holmes’ own take on Baartman’s legacy might have made a more compelling end to her story. Holmes never deviates from narrating the story, which she does capably, but her reluctance to write about why she’s so moved by Baartman’s life is ultimately our loss. It never moves beyond a hagiography, and therefore doesn’t really add anything new or particularly timely. We’re left to speculate about Holmes’ motives — her bio says she divides her time between London and Cape Town, and the book is steeped in feminist theory, take your pick — but we’re left with no explanation of why she felt so drawn to this project.

She does hint at a post-Baartman world, briefly quoting Josephine Baker — “When it comes to blacks, the imagination of white folks is something else” — and she mentions the popularity of the bustle among fashionable Victorians. Holmes imagines Baartman would have laughed at buttock augmentation, the fastest-growing cosmetic surgery in the U.S. and U.K. But what does she have to say about Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls” or Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious”? Now we can scoff at the clueless Valley Girls in the intro to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s asstastic “Baby Got Back” (“I mean, her butt, is just so big. I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like, out there, I mean — gross. Look! She’s just so … black!”), but does it mean that we’ve come a long way? In the simultaneous lasciviousness and curiosity we’ve lavished on Jennifer Lopez’s posterior, have we never stopped searching for that scantily clad totem goddess after all? We can pat ourselves on the back and feel disgusted by the story, and yet what made people leer at Baartman has the same effect on us today. (source: Salon Magazine )

VENUS 2010: Panel One - Sarah Baartman in Context from NYU Photography and Imaging on Vimeo.

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