THE subtitle of this book is The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman: Born 1789 – Buried 2002. It took a long time to return Baartman’s remains to her home country – she died in 1815 – so maybe it is not surprising that we have had to wait another five years before an accessible and well-researched account of her has reached the shelves.
Her return here and burial, on Women’s Day in 2002, was a cause célèbre – and far from uncontroversial. Since then, apart from a number of scholarly articles, little has appeared. One extraordinarily bad and historically inaccurate novel has come my way, and there may have been others, but at last we have something that puts the unfortunate Saartjie Baartman into some kind of perspective.
There is a surprising amount of detail available about the early life of the Hottentot Venus, who was born in the Gamtoos valley in the area where she is now buried. Her father was a cattleman, driving herds down to the Cape on a 900-mile round trip, and she grew up speaking the Khoisan language of her people and some Afrikaans. But she also grew up in a time of war and upheaval, both in South Africa and in the wider world.
Her life of exploitation both here and in Europe after the death of her father is described in detail. Two hundred years ago, freak shows were a part of popular culture in the capitals of Europe – the Survivor and Big Brother of their day, pandering to a lowest common cultural denominator. Interestingly Holmes shows that, particularly among abolitionist circles, voices were raised in disquiet about what was being done to Baartman, but her own wishes were never fully heard, even when the matter came to court.
In London and Paris she was subjected to maltreatment, exploitation and the gaze of the prurient. Some were at least honest about why they wanted to see her; others dressed up their pornographic interests in the guise of science. And after her death, her body was turned into a museum exhibit. At least at that stage, the stares of the curious could no longer disturb her.
On occasion, Holmes does put words into Baartman’s mouth, but this is a highly readable account of an extraordinary life, death and afterlife.
In one of the most interesting parts of the book, the author looks at what has happened to Baartman since her return to South Africa. Burial was never going to be uncontentious, and already her grave in the Gamtoos valley has suffered the attention of vandals. And in speaking at the burial, President Thabo Mbeki made statements about medicine and the sexual ideology of colonialism that could all too easily be read as further criticism of the medical wisdom that prescribes ARVs as treatment for HIV and Aids, not just the way in which a human being was turned into a pseudo-scientific “curiosity”. It seems that Baartman will continue to be exploited. In bringing this to public awareness, Holmes’s book plays a powerful and vital role.