|A more human representation of Baartman than the caricatures which defined her image in the 19th century.|
Our lecture last Thursday in European History Since 1648 at UNLV explored the Enlightenment as it had long been assessed by historians and its own philosophes: as associated with reason, with rational government, with the accumulation of knowledge, with the ordering of that knowledge, and with ideas of liberty of thought and action.
Today we explored some of the harsher realities of the Enlightenment: the limits of its applicability and the violence that its desire for order and hierarchy could inflict on human beings when its claims about universality passed them over.
We watched Zola Maseko’s film, The Life and Times of Sara Baartman. The eponymous historical figure was a young Khoisan woman abducted in South Africa and transported to London, where she was exhibited as a “freak” to European audiences, gaining renown as the “Hottentot Venus”, a not-quite-human creature in the eyes of onlookers.
Baartman eventually arrived in Paris where she was the subject of prurient “scientific” examination. Even in death her tormentors did not leave her in peace: her body was dismembered and her genitalia—part of what Enlightened Europeans believed defined her inhumanity—and skeleton were displayed in the Musee de l’Homme.
The film is sobering, but at its conclusion the class had a thoughtful conversation about how features of the Enlightenment permitted or even encouraged the demarcation of difference and the dehumanization that Sarah Baartman’s experience illustrates so tragically. Students also drew some parallels with some of the ways in which people are objectified or enslaved today, along both gendered and racial lines.
On Thursday we will begin exploring the first of two revolutions that shook Europe’s political and ideological foundations during the late-eighteenth century.