This is the fifth part in a series on Sara Baartman.
Baartman’s body has been made to hold more than one set of political significances, too. Let’s start with slavery abolitionists.
White abolitionists in England went to court against the person who was then Baartman’s owner, Cezar. It’s important to note that Baartman was used to talk about slavery of African peoples in general rather her specifically ethnicised display. Her individual experiences, and those of peoples of African descent, were therefore erased in the name of a political agenda yet again. And it wasn’t even a political agenda that was going to help them out, let alone one controlled by them. Indeed, the group was called the African Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior of Africa, their concern still very much a part of “benevolent” colonisation.
The abolitionists’ concern was in particular about the possibility of Cezar caging and committing sexual violence against Baartman. Even Baartman’s supposed champions, then, pushed the framing of Baartman as an animalistic racial other with only exploitable sexual value. I have a whole range of concerns I would have used to object, and I would have asked Baartman herself what she had experienced and wanted before launching a case. You only go over someone’s head like that and loudly proclaim them a victim if you’ve no respect for them as a person.
Now, here’s an interesting point. Baartman’s fame began to rise with the interest of abolitionists in her case. It was her political significance rather than her body, constructed as curious and singular though it was, that caused her prominence. Baartman’s individual significance, therefore, was not located in some inherent physical otherness, but in the political discourses operating in her context. And that the objections to her sexualised display were on grounds of potential sexual violence – well, that highlights that the appropriative concern combined sexual and racial anxieties most intricately. I suspect the Association cared more about controlling the other than protecting her.
I have a brief point to make about Baartman’s political significance in 1990s South Africa, too. Baartman became, of course, a symbol of how Africans, and South Africans in particular, were treated under colonialism. Nelson Mandela headed a campaign to have Baartman’s remains returned to South Africa. Now, it’s fantastic and right that Baartman’s countrypeople cared so much about her across the years that they did their absolute best to look after her interests long after her death. But the circumstances of her burial, as discussed in the introduction to this series, are telling. We cannot know everything of the specificity of Baartman’s experience, and there is an extent to which that specificity is eroded by assigning her a perhaps incorrect ethnic group, embodiment of all disempowerment of black women, and symbolism of black reclamation of power and agency in South Africa. I don’t want her to be a symbol lacking agency anymore. And I hope that as South Africa continues to heal, Baartman’s story becomes one among many acknowledged and significant stories of racialised, sexualised, and gendered oppression.
Individuals shouldn’t have to disappear in non-elective service of political causes. Who would have thought a person as much in the public eye as Baartman would disappear under it?