Both from the
pen keyboard of Brian Switek, on his blog Laelaps.
The first begins with a quote from Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, recounting the genocidal approach of an Argentinian general towards some of the local indigenous tribes. Darwin found this approach horrifying, but also doubted that there was much that could be done about it. Brian goes on to propose an historical hypothesis about how these experiences might have influenced Darwin’s thinking on extinction (which he recognised went hand-in-hand with evolution).
The second – on Saartje Baartman – rang a bell with me when I saw it, because some years ago I’d read an article about Saartje by Stephen Jay Gould. In fact, on checking my library just now I find that Gould wrote about Saartje at least twice: she gets a brief mention in The Mismeasure of Man – an excellent book that examines the history of our many attempts to measure ‘intelligence’, & makes it clear that the various hypotheses underpinning these efforts are often – too often? – informed by underlying prejudices. And there’s a much longer treatment of her story in The Flamingo’s Smile.
I’ve always enjoyed Gould’s writing, not least because of the historical perspective that he puts on things. It’s important to remember that we’re all shaped by the culture that we live in; too often, I think, people look back at previous scientists’ work with a feeling of superiority, & forget that their work & their conclusions were influenced by the tools, understandings, & attitudes of their time. But having said that, I still think that Saartje was treated abysmally back in the early 1800s, when she was regarded as a zoological & anthropological curiosity, exhibited publicly in sideshows in England and France, and privately to eminent men of science in those countries.
Saartje was treated this way because she was a Khoikhoi woman, one of the ‘bushmen’ of South Africa, and as such regarded as sitting somewhere on the evolutionary path between the apes and ‘proper’ humans. And also because of her physical characteristics – she was familiarly known as the ‘Hottentot Venus because, like other Khoikhoi women, she was extremely steatopygous, having accumulated a very large amount of fat in her buttocks. (There’s a contemporary image of her here.) This made her a fascinating figure to both the curious & the prurient; after all, she was paraded almost naked on the stage for all to see.
And certainly commentators of the time, in both the popular & scientific press, seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to emphasise the ‘animal’ qualities of Saartje herself and the Khoikhoi people in general. This despite the fact that Georges Cuvier himself stated that Saartje was an intelligent woman with general proportions that would not lead connoisseurs to frown… [[She] possessed an excellent memory, spoke Dutch rather well, had some command of English, and was learning a bit of French when she died (Gould, 1985). (Yet at the same time he could describe her face as ‘brutal’ – animal-like.) There was also an almost grotesque fascination with Saartje’s genitalia, due to reports that these were enveloped by a curtain of skin – another feature setting the Khoi-San apart from ‘regular’ people in the eyes of many scientists of the time. But Saartje refused to satisfy their curiosity.
So, sadly, when she died in 1815, she certainly didn’t get to rest in peace. Like another ‘oddity’, the conjoined twins Ritta-Christina, she was destined not for a quiet burial but for the dissecting table. Cuvier himself performed the dissection, presenting her genitalia in a jar to the French Academy of Science – an ignominious end to Saartje’s life. That jar, together with her skeleton & another jar containing her brain, is still in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris. At the time the living woman, and later her earthly remains, nicely fitted the current prejudices about ‘inferior’ races (with Europeans at the top of the tree, naturally).
Yes, things have changed. But it’s as important as ever for us to recognise our beliefs & prejudices, and try to put them aside. (Recognising that they exist is half the battle!) As Brian says
The tragedy of Saartje Baartman painfully illustrates that those who were convinced that dark-skinned races were deficient and inferior found just what they were looking for, and I do not think scientists have suddenly become immune from being influenced by racial prejudice. We might like to think ourselves as more objective than scientists of the past, that we have somehow freed ourselves from all racial biases, but there is perhaps no area of research so influenced by our own beliefs and convictions than the study of humanity.
S.J.Gould (1985) The Flamingo’s Smile. W.W.Norton