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The ghost of Sarah Baartman lives on

| Monday, March 29, 2021

The Pan-African Youth Conference held virtually on March 27th, 2021 marked the end of Africa Week here at Notre Dame. In addition to sharing a piece of Africa with Notre Dame, it has also been a week of reflection on our African heritage and the place of Africans in the world. So, in this column, I share how most Africans view Africa’s relationship with the West, through the account of the Hottentot Venus.

The story is about Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus. In 1810, Sarah was shipped to the UK for exhibition at a freakshow. Her exhibitor, English trader Alexander Dunlop, thought he could make money by piquing the curiosity of his fellow Europeans about the Sarah’s ‘uncharacteristic’ natural features, particularly her backside. Sarah would go on several exhibitions, continuing to Paris where she died and had her body dissected by the disreputable Dr. Cuvier whose distorted ‘scientific’ conclusions fed racist European sentiments for years thereafter. 

More than 200 years after Sarah’s death, her legacy lives on, providing a lens for us to understand Africa’s relationship with the West. In Dunlop’s eyes, Sarah’s peculiar bodily features were a resource for him to exploit, at Sarah’s expense. By exhibiting Sarah at London’s freak shows, he hoped to make a fortune by satiating Englishmen’s curiosity about the ‘savage race’ of Khoikhoi women — and African people in general. Sarah was barely compensated, if ever. Colonists viewed Africa as a reservoir for natural resources available for commercial exploitation in the same way Dunlop saw Sarah’s body. The disreputable Capt. Fredrick Lugard justified the expansion of the British empire into Africa by pointing to the need for natural resources to power Britain’s industries. The British didn’t have to export Africa as they did to Sarah; Africa became — literally and figuratively — both the body and the freak show for those who wanted to see and touch her vast resources, whether for commercial gain or simply for seeking adventure. Europeans tinkered with the physical integrity of Africa’s landscape, carving out territories for themselves without the consent of the Africans and plundering Africa’s resources just the same way the English explored Sarah’s body. Today, more than 200 years after Sarah’s death, Europeans continue to exploit Africa the way Sarah’s body was exploited. For instance, France maintains control over the monetary policy of several West-African countries and natural resources continue to flow out of Africa into the West. While Sarah’s body may no longer be on display in France’s Museum of Natural History, Africa is still on display in Western corporate media in a way that satiates Westerner’s curiosity about an uncivilized continent suffering great deprivation and in need of a savior.

Sarah Baartman’s experience was essentially about power and control. There was a power imbalance between Sarah and Hendrik Caesars, who was her Black master, and Sarah and Alexander Dunlop, who was her white master. Dunlop was aware of his power and abused it to exploit his subjects. Sarah allegedly insisted she would only go to England if Caesars was coming along. When Caesars refused, Dunlop decided to blackmail him by threatening him with jail if he refused to escort Sarah to London. There is no evidence Sarah was ever consulted in drawing up terms of contract about her exhibition and Caesars was too illiterate to understand the terms of the contract. It was Dunlop’s world, and Sarah and Hendriks were mere pawns in his game. Unfortunately, little has changed about that world today; racial relations remain largely about power and control. Moreover, Dunlop’s tactics of blackmail and Cesar’s infantility depict the power dynamics that influence Africa’s relationship with the West. British colonial administrators in Africa relied, in some cases, on native African leaders to conquer territories in Africa. These Africans were promised either a reward of protection in exchange for control over their territory or threatened with destruction if they didn’t cooperate

In the 21st century, a lot of the trade deals signed between Western and African leaders bear an eerie similarity to the kind of contract signed between Alexander Dunlop and Hendrik Caesars. African leaders are often on the receiving end of unfair trade agreements. In 2018, for instance, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda announced a ban on secondhand clothes from the U.S. in order to protect Rwanda’s infant domestic industries. President Trump, despite being a champion of protectionism himself, retaliated by threatening to block access of Rwandan goods to the U.S. market if the ban wasn’t lifted. Just like Dunlop coerced Caesars into going to London against his will, President Trump attempted to force Rwandans to consume secondhand American clothes at the expense of their own domestic industries. Sarah might have acquiesced to her own servitude but there was little she could do about the situation had she not acquiesced. Similarly, African leaders often find themselves at a crossroads; either to indulge in bad deals or walk away empty handed because in the eyes of Western leaders, like Caesars, African leaders are still somewhat infantile and like Sarah Baartman, African people are not deserving of fair treatment. 

Whether in life or death, Sarah’s reality was defined by others. Dunlop reduced Sarah to just her skin color and her physical attributes and made her believe those attributes were all she was. This exertion of power through dehumanization was tactically necessity for Dunlop, in order for him to control both Sarah and Caesars. It is the only way Sarah could have ended up on display for Englishmen to satiate their idiosyncratic curiosities. Sarah came to accept this as her reality such that when the abolitionist’s lodged a case for her freedom, she covered up for Dunlop by lying that she had come to England of her own accord and that she wasn’t being held in slavery. Clearly, Sarah came to accept the reality Dunlop imposed on her. 

Just as Dunlop sought to imprison Sarah’s mind by defining a certain reality for her, Western cultural imperialism continues to homogenize sociocultural discourse, effectively defining certain realities for non-Western peoples and bringing them to accept it as their own. Leading Western philosophers, from Aristotle to Kant, have asserted the inferiority of Black people relative to white people. These racist attitudes were given credence by the racist Dr. Cuvier who, having dissected Sarah Baartman’s body upon her death, concluded this ‘savage’ race of the Khoikhoi—and by extension Black people—were closer to apes than to human beings. Unfortunately, existing in such a deeply racist world has greatly affected the psychology of some Black people. Thanks to stereotypical media portrayals of Africa, there are millions of Black people in Africa and across the world who live in acceptance of their permanent inferiority to whiteness. Such people live in adoration and pursuit of everything white. They are the young Africans who risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean in pursuit of ‘greener pastures’ in Europe, even when Europe is in such economic distress and the Black people who, uncomfortable in the color of their skin, bleach themselves.

Indeed, in reading Sarah Baartman’s story, one only has to substitute Africa for Sarah, and all her experiences are still with us. By treating Sarah’s descendants — Black people — in the same way that Sarah was treated, the West continues the same violence Sarah endured in her life. Sarah Baartman might be dead, but her ghost lives on in eerily the same way that her body did, more than 200 years after her physical death. 

Trevor Lwere is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in Economics, with a PPE minor. He hails from Kampala, Uganda and lives off campus. He is a dee-jay in his other life and can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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