This is the third part in a series on Sara Baartman.
Please take note of the title and that you may find this post distressing.
Racial science was particularly vital to how Baartman’s body would come to be framed. Baartman’s breasts, elongated labia, and steatopygia (large buttocks, basically) were constructed as exemplary of the colonised female other of her background. Except, what was her background, again? She was and is regularly figured as Khoi or Khoisan or Khoikhoi, but the application of these terms shifted between groups around Baartman’s lifetime. Between that and the lack of records of even her birth name, it’s unclear as to which ethnic group she actually belonged. Potentially, Baartman was made to represent a racialised group of which she was not actually a part. This more than anything, to me, shows that, rather than her otherness being rooted statically in her physicality as scientists claimed, Baartman’s exotic attributes were produced by racist cultural significances.
That ethnic misattribution is not the only reason why it is striking that Baartman’s body in particular commanded so much scientific fascination. She was supposedly a typifying example of her “type,” and between that and being put on display, you’d think she was a singularly “exotic” creature. Not so. She existed alongside many thousands of black people in London alone, going about their daily lives. It was her existence as a black woman and performer that drew scientific fascination. Sadiah Qureshi writes amazingly on how this rendered the desire to analyse Baartman specifically gendered, but I’ll get to her.
And this curiosity was justified through the early nineteenth century as a scientifically rigorous quest for knowledge of the other. Comparative anatomist Cuvier dissected Baartman with the aim of uncovering her singularity. It was his fascination, though, that created this particularity, rather than anything inherent in her body. His gruesome fascination with her sexual characteristics emerged from his culture’s framing of African women’s sexualities as animalistic, as something one could observe through simply looking. He should have been turning the lens on himself.
Not only did this push Baartman, an individual, into an impossible embodiment of all “Hottentot” women, it simultaneously devalued Baartman’s individual humanity. That’s because she was made representative of humanity’s lowest link to animals. In ‘preserving her as a racial type [Boschimanne], rather than as an anomaly or separate species, [Cuvier] erased her individuality whilst implicitly legitimating his politics of anatomy,’ says Qureshi. (I’ll stop citing her eventually, I just think she’s one of the best academics on this. That quote was from her ‘Displaying Sara Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus”’ in History of Science 42 in June 2004.)
Even her early death was supposed to be probably the result of alcohol or disease. That is, Baartman’s supposed bodily degeneracy, according to European cultural construction, made even her death her responsibility.
My point is that the colonised woman is so often rendered open to discursive and literal dissection, and this was very much the case with Baartman. It’s just awful that her individuality was obliterated by those supposedly uncovering it.