By Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully (Guest Contributors)
When we began researching our biography of Sara Baartman we thought we knew what we would find. Two white men brought Sara Baartman to 19th-century London, where she was put on show in Piccadilly. Every study, every bit of popular knowledge representing Sara Baartman’s life as the “Hottentot Venus,” had said so.
Newspapers in London at the time described Hendrik Cesars as a colonist. The extraordinary efforts to return Baartman’s remains, beginning soon after South Africa’s first democratic elections and ending in her state funeral in 2002, had represented her life as that of a black woman taken advantage of by white men. President Thabo Mbeki has said as much in his eulogy, extending his comments to a denunciation of Western science, indeed the entire Enlightenment.
We would discover, however, that Cesars was, in the racial categorization of the Cape, a “free black.” His descendants were slaves, brought forcibly to South Africa to work on the farms and in the city. Cesars’s wife also descended from slaves. The couples’ life in a poor section of Cape Town remained indelibly marked by slavery. Laws prohibited them from wearing fancy clothes. They had to apply for permission to leave the area. And they were barred from many of the economic opportunities “free burghers” enjoyed. One of the men responsible for Sara Baartman’s exploitation was, himself, subjected to prejudice.
South Africans, and indeed most of the modern world, can only see others for the color of their skin. Modern racism and its many legacies seems to have forever shaped how one speak of others, our very apprehensions of past and present. This is not how the world always was. Hendrik Cesars’s complexion was “white”, even as he was known by others in the Cape as “free black.” This is why when Cesars traveled to England Londoners saw him as a white man, a colonial settler, a mean, violent master. They could not see him for what he was, could not understand his humanity even as they criticized his actions, the decisions he made. And this is how it remains, regrettably, today.
Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully are authors of Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography.
This post first appeared on Wonders & Marvels in June 2009.