By Gary Oswald
This series of articles normally looks at countries, here we're going to focus instead on two individuals, one who lived prior to the Scramble and one who lived during it but who both were children when their homelands were conquered by Europeans. The two in question are Sara Baartman, who was born in the 1770s and was a house servant in the Dutch Cape Colony and Ota Benga, who was born in the 1880s in the Congo Free State. These two people are well known primarily because they came to Europe and the USA respectively where they were displayed as exotic attractions, in Benga’s case, within the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo.
Their stories are a useful way of illustrating the extreme racism of the era, wherein both religious and scientific explanations for the inferiority of the black race were widespread. The religious reasons were primarily based around either the curse of Ham, wherein the descendants of Noah’s son were cursed with black skin and the fate of being slaves as a punishment for Ham catching Noah masturbating or the idea that Africans were degraded from having travelled so far from the Garden of Eden. Scientific reasons were based on either evolution, with Africans often seen as a missing link between monkeys and white humans, or on scientific racism, wherein tortured logic was applied to argue that the Black African race had accomplished nothing. Charles Gabriel Seligman went so far as to argue in his 1930 book ‘The Races of Africa’ that all the many African civilisations had actually been started by middle eastern immigrants with the ‘negroid’ race producing nothing.
Sara and Benga were displayed as freaks, as less than human, and so played into this narrative. But when talking about their treatment as an exciting novelty to be displayed to curious whites we must not forget that both of them were travelling to areas where thousands of black people had been before and attracted less attention.
The first Sub Saharan Africans to enter Europe almost certainly happened in antiquity, the Sudanese Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt were active in Cyprus and the Romans hired mercenaries from Sudan and Ethiopia to fight in European wars. During Medieval Europe, North Africans active in their Iberian territories often bought Black African slaves, soldiers and concubines with them. In places like Italy and even Christian Spain, Black African nobles from the Muslim Empires made regular trading visits and interbred with the local nobles, hence the way the Medici rulers of Florence had openly mixed race members.
As the European Age of Exploration kicked off, the number of Black Europeans expanded. Some were slaves, others earned their freedom in Europe and others still arrived as freemen. Christendom was not yet at this point mostly associated with whiteness, Catholic sub Saharans such as Ethiopians and Kongolese would be welcomed to the Vatican as ambassadors and bishops. Kongolese nobility were often educated in Spain and Portugal and later African elites would be educated in France and England. During the 18th Century Black Europeans would be lead violinists in Portuguese opera houses, superintendents of Russian cities, Professors of Philosophy in German Universities and Generals in French Armies. Moreover, beyond this unrepresentative elite, there existed a small but existent minority of poor Africans working in cities like London and Amsterdam in menial, but paid, roles as sailors, porters and the like from the 1500s onwards.
It is not my intention to pretend that there was no racial tension or discrimination in Europe prior to the 19th century or that Europe in the 1600s was anywhere near as multicultural as Europe today. Neither would be true, we are talking about a tiny minority numbering in the hundreds in most countries and which did face prejudice. But the general racial science of all black men being one thing and all white being another was much rarer, the rule was exceptions and individual cases being treat differently depending on their class and religion. Black elites were still sold into slavery, defeated Kings who had been sold by their conquerors made up the leaders of a great many slave revolts, but they were also sometimes freed and rehoused if they could prove their identities. Black Royalty were taken on tours of both Portuguese and British slave plantations at different points to identify and free men who were not seen as rightful slaves due to their high status, in the British case the man in question was hosted in London as a guest of high society as an apology for his time as a slave. And not only was blackness less of a thing, so was whiteness, in British New York a governor once wrote to England asking for more Africans and less Irish as indentured servants as he felt the former were civilised and the latter were not.
But it was in those colonies that universal racial hierarchies were properly established. The first Africans to arrive in the New World with the Spanish had included slaves but also freedmen, Juan Garrido, who fought with Cortez, was from the Kingdom of Kongo and became a landowner who is credited as being the first person to successfully grow old world wheat in Mexico. But as the number of African slaves being imported grew and life slavery replaced indentured slavery, strict racial hierarchies began to replace this ad-hoc system, with the French Empire in the aftermath of the Seven Years War going so far as to quantify roles based on the amount of black vs white ancestors each person had.
By the 1770s, Sara Baartman was born into a world where being ‘white’ or ‘black’ now meant a good deal but who was who was still very much in flux, with different rules in different places. She was born in the Eastern Cape during a period where her people’s land were colonised by Dutch speaking settlers. Her family were dispossessed of their herds of animals and became house and field servants or slaves. The line between servitude and slavery in South Africa was quite fuzzy at the time. Sara was not legally enslaved because the Dutch laws prohibited the taking of native slaves but slavery does not have to be legal to happen and she shared the same powerlessness and lack of financial freedom due to working in an alien condition that many modern slaves have. Whether she had the opportunity to ever quit her job is an open question, when she moved households it tended to be that she was transferred by her existing master to the new one, rather than it being her choice. She moved to Cape Town in 1797 and worked as a house servant and prostitute for the next fifteen years, giving birth to three children, who all died as infants, and living through the change of colonial ownership of the Cape from the Dutch to the British.
In 1809 the British introduced the Caledon code in the Cape which essentially legalised serfdom among the Dutch settlers. The native servants had to be paid for their work and were protected against ill treatment but they were tied to their farms and households and could only leave with permission. In doing this they essentially sorted the racially mixed Cape population into three categories, slave or serf, free black and white citizen, and to a large extent who ended up where was quite arbitrary. The Free Blacks included the mixed race descendants of slave and settlers and also Asian immigrants. The serfs now included both the existing slaves who the Dutch had imported from places like Madagascar and the native women who, under Dutch law, had legally been servants. Under British law then, Sara became essentially a slave, though she legally still had to be paid, while her current master, Hendrik Cesars, was deemed a free black due to his mixed race ancestry. Hendrik quickly fell into in financial difficulty, and owed large sums of money to the powerful Jacobus Voz. That power can be illustrated by the fact that Voz was categorised as a white citizen though he also had black ancestors and would be referred to as mixed race nowadays. William Dunlop, a Scottish surgeon visiting the Cape, offered Hendrik a solution. He and Sara could travel to Europe where Dunlop would display Sara as a freak show due to what Europeans viewed as her unusually large buttocks and labia. The money earned would be enough to pay off the debts owed to Voz.
Upon arriving in London, Hendrik and Sara saw their identities shift again. In England, Hendrik was seen not as a free black but as a white foreigner with a black savage slave. In abolitionist literature, he was used as a representative of the sins of the Boers that British papers had been making much of in order to justify the British conquest of the Cape. In the Cape he was black but by moving to Europe Hendrik had become a white man.
From 1810 to 1811, Sara was displayed in cages of the freak show, dressed in skimpy ‘ethnic clothes’ and chanting and dancing in what was imagined to be an African style. She was labelled the ‘Hottentot Venus’ and curious Londoners paid extra to be able to grope her buttocks and bought postcards with paintings of her naked form on them. And yet by this time there were over a thousand black people living in London, when not at ‘work’ Sara, dressed in the usual clothes she had worn all her life, probably received little notice. She was remarkable not because of her race but because of the way her performance forcibly exotified her.
And as such she became a cause celebre of the progressives. The British parliament had voted to abolish the slave trade just a few years before under the slogan that a slave was also a man and a brother. And the Somerset case was often understood as ruling that it was illegal to hold an African Slave on British soil. As a result of public outrage, the King’s court held a trial of the Hottentot show based on this principle. If Sara was a worker, being paid for her work, that was legal, but if she was a slave, that was not, and she must be freed and then returned to the Cape Colony as a free woman. Even though slavery would remain legal in British South Africa for three more decades, it was not legal in the UK to return her to slavery.
Sara was interrogated and she declared that she had come to the UK under her free will, that she had signed a contract acting as a paid servant for Dunlop and Cesars, that she received half the money paid to the shows and that she would rather remain in England working than return to the Cape. The court believed her and the shows continued for several more years. The question remains whether we should believer her quite as quickly. For a start Sara was offered two very stark choices, she could declare herself happy with her lot or she could be returned to Africa, Sara might well have been better off in England then returning alone and jobless to a society where there were legal slaves even if she wasn’t being paid what was claimed. Secondly we do not know the extent to which Sara believed that her honesty would be useful and that it would not be held against her. For a start, because Hendrik Cesars was viewed as the primary villain, Dunlop was in the room when she was interrogated which seems unlikely to encourage her to speak against him.
In court it was argued that Sara was no different than any white ‘freak’ displaying themselves in circuses, such as Joseph Merrick did decades later. But she held a racial significance that the dwarfs and giants she was compared to did not. After being baptised, Sara was taken to France where she was displayed by an Animal Trainer at the Palais-Royal under worse conditions, some sources indicated she wore a collar, until she died of small pox. In both France and England, Sara was used as proof of the savagery and foreignness of the Africans. And she was examined by scientists rather than just gawked at by the public, she turns up as an example in several works of scientific racism. While others were 'freaks' because of their disabilities, she was a ‘freak’ because of her race and as such the legacy of her show was both a trend for exotic savages being displayed in those shows, often actually played by white men or westernised minorities, and her existence being used to justify white supremacy.
In the decades after her death, human zoos or colonial exhibitions as scientific displays rather than entertainment began to be more common. Thousands of Africans, Asians, Native Americans, Polynesians and even some Europeans like the Sami were displayed in this way throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, continuing into the 1950s as a way of reinforcing their subhumaness. They were seen as representatives of the natural world as much as tigers were and were often displayed in stages of their native environments, with the Somali displayed with camels and the Ashanti in jungle scenes.
The Berlin Colonial Show of 1896 is an example of those motives, to show the German people a glimpse of the areas of the world they held under their sway, but this was complicated by the people chosen for it. The colonial governors chose to recruit the children of local elites for the show for another reason, to impress upon those children, who might be future leaders, the might and size of the German Empire by showing them the big cities and large armies of the German metropole. This aim of the colonial department however clashed with the leaders of the show which wanted to display these children in colonial villages of their native climates. This led to darkly comic scenes as the largely westernised elite were forced by the colonial organisers to dress and wear in native styles they had long since abandoned. The Dula representatives, from Cameroon, refused to perform the dances they were asked to, the Tanzanians did not know how to make the style of huts they were supposed to be housed in and the Herero refused to wear ‘native’ clothes they had never seen before and instead wore their usual trousers and jackets. The organiser Felix von Luschen, a big believer in the inferiority of the black races, wrote with fury that this choice of subjects was clearly unrepresentative and so damaged the integrity of the show and the scientific lessons it was meant to teach about white superiority.
Rather than encountering a savage alien race, Berliners were greeted with charming German speaking Christians who happened to be black. Frederick Mahahero, the handsome son of a Herero leader, got love letters from German women for decades after though the German colonial department didn't deliver any of them to him. Frederick himself was killed during the Herero Genocide, which happened not because the Herero were ‘savage’, Frederick wasn't unrepresentative of what was a prosperous Christian people, but because the Herero understood the worth of their land and labour and so the only way the Germans could obtain both was by force. The Nama, who were also victims of that genocide and were if anything more westernised than the Herero, were the descendants of Sara's people, the native slaves of the Cape Colony. They'd been reading European newspapers for over a hundred years by the time of the Berlin Colonial Show. The Germans might be needed to be introduced to the Nama but the Nama knew who the Germans were before they'd even landed and wrote with alarm about the Berlin Conference.
Which to an extent is the point of the Colonial Exhibitions. They existed to sell a lie in Europe, of the discovery of savage untamed Africans living in nature with no clue about the wider world, which the true reality of colonialism could hide behind. Much like Sara had dressed up in unusual clothes to perform, so too did the people in the colonial exhibitions. The thousands of subjects of these zoos suffered numerous humiliations by being stripped and displayed in cages to the public as representatives of an imbecilic less than human race. But those experiences are also not really representative of what the average colonial subject endured.
Despite how she was advertised, Sara and her kin weren't living in the wilds of Africa, she lived in a bustling city where she worked as a housemaid and a prostitute, like many English women did, and that part of her experience was shared by far more black Africans than her time in Europe. Likewise the experience of a huge amount of colonial subjects was of working in industrial factories and mines much like white workers rather than being displayed in zoos.
You cannot tell the story of the Scramble for Africa without talking about racism but colonial imperialism is not only a story of racism. The race scientists often had much admiration for the works of Egypt and the idea that Egypt was not African was something they argued for passionately. They would not have viewed the peasants of Egypt in the same way as Black Africans but the race scientists also weren't often in change. When the Khedive of Egypt went into debt and European bankers rearranged the governance of the country in order to get their money back, it was Egyptian peasants who died in their thousands thanks to famine caused by the change in policies. Indian and Irish peasants of the same era might also question precisely how much they gained from being classed as Caucasian while dying in famines.
Colonialism involves racial humiliation in terms of being stripped of your dignity and your independence but it is also involves economic domination and exploitation. The two motives cannot be separated from each other because the existence of the former such as in the zoos justified the latter but that economic exploitation was far more representative. However not all of the subjects of the zoos were bought there by the colonial powers, in some cases the zoo represented an escape from that colonial system.
In 1904 Ota Benga, a Mbuti or Congo Pygmy, was bought from Lele slavers by an American called Samuel Verner. Benga’s wife and children had been killed by the Force Publique of King Leopold who had then tortured Benga and sold him to the Lele and, as a result, he had little desire to stay in the Free State. Verner took Benga to the safehouse African American missionaries had established in the Congo, and then recruited around 8 Africans from that safehouse to return with him to the USA where they would be able to represent their people. At the 1905 St. Louis World's Fair they were displayed as part of Colonial Exposition alongside Native Americans, Filipinos and other Africans and gave speeches to the visitors about their people. This was the USA post the American-Spanish war and ready to show off that it was now a colonial power too.
Benga, who had agreed to come along, was the star attraction because his teeth were filed to sharp points, a not uncommon ritual body modification in the area, and so he was advertised as ‘America’s only genuine cannibal’. This is almost certainly not true, it was attested by numerous sources that ritual cannibalism was practiced in the Congo but how widespread this was is debateable, given the Belgians had motive to exaggerate such stories to justify their own atrocities, and there's no reason to think that Benga himself ever participated. Verner never even claimed that Benga was a cannibal, but rather that the Lele were about to eat him when he bought him from them and, while other sources also indicate the Lele ate Mbuti captives, this detail was a later addition to the narrative that Verner first told years after Benga had become famous.
Benga later viewed the period at the World's Fair as one of the brightest spots of his life due to the real bonds he made with the Native Americans and other Africans from the exhibit, with the Apache leader Geronimo in particular befriending him. The World's Fair was still a racist colonial exhibition that contrasted the 'primitive' colonial subjects with the civilised whites. The guests were patronised and viewed as scientific exhibits rather than speakers, the crowds were more interested in watching them play sports, make baskets or do dances then explain their cultures and so the colonial subjects quickly found the shows monotonous and unfulfilling. Moreover, the residential areas were cramped and several died from fevers. A bunch of Zulu, who had gone there in the hope of gaining a platform to speak against the cruelty of British rule, ran away from the Fair after several weeks there and while they were taken in by local African Americans, they were soon bought back by armed police and made to complete their work, which is a worrying moment in terms of the question between servitude and slavery. But Benga enjoyed the companionship of the other human exhibits and, for all the issues, showing his teeth to tourists was undoubtedly better than doing forced labour in the Congo Free State. When the other Africans returned back home, Benga stayed in America, living in a room in the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Without the companionship of the Fair, Benga quickly grew bored and restless, attacking a visitor and often leaving to wander around the city. He also started doing unpaid work at the Bronx Zoo during this time period, where he helped maintain the animal house and so gained the attention of the visitors. The Zoo’s Keepers took advantage of this, encouraging him to build a hammock in the Monkey House and then putting up a sign about him and advertising him as part of the exhibit, the Pygmy in the Zoo being no different from the Gorilla there.
Much like Sara's shows a century earlier, this was deeply controversial. James Gordon, an African American clergyman, wrote letters in which he was openly disgusted at the humiliation of a black person being housed as an animal rather than a human with a soul and Gordon represented a sizable faction. Arguments broke out about this on the twin subjects of 'Was Benga's dignity being outraged by being housed in a Zoo?' and 'Was Benga being used to prove the unchristian and sacrilegious theory of evolution?'. Gordon's letters showed his outrage at both and while American racists argued in reply that the pygmies were incapable of being civilised and so he must be happier in the zoo then he would be in a school, African-American leaders lined up to meet Benga. The controversy meant he would eventually be removed from the Zoo and sent to a black orphanage, despite being in his mid-20s. He would attend schools, get a factory job and have his pointed teeth capped but ultimately his life in America was an unhappy one and he killed himself in 1916 upon learning that civilian ships to Africa had stopped because of the First World War.
Both Benga and Sara were attempting to escape their dire situations in Africa by performing in the West but neither seems to have been happy in their new roles either and both stories ended tragically. The innate racism of the western societies and the way they were presented as an ‘other’ in order to make money based on their alienness ensured that. Both of their careers also raise the difficulty of defining what exactly free labour is, if the options are to perform in Europe or be returned to slave labour in Africa is that really free? Is that different to the unemployed risking starvation? The Scramble for Africa would raise many difficult questions for Abolitionists as the Atlantic Slave Trade became replaced with forced labour in colonial Empires and the next few articles will cover some of them as we look at the Blockade of Africa, how it was formed and what the consequences of it were to the ex slaves and the ex slavers that littered West Africa.