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One of the 'invisibles of history'

An African woman's subjugation to 19th century racism is the topic of a new novel.

November 04, 2003|Edmund Newton | Special to The Times

PARIS — In the grand scheme of things, Sarah Baartman hardly seemed to count for much. Certainly not in the tumultuous events of Western Europe in the early 19th century. An orphaned girl from an obscure South African tribe of hunter-gatherers, she was one of the ordinary millions who pass through the world like grains of sand washed briefly onto a beach by the tide.

She was one of "the invisibles of history," says novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud.

But the young shepherdess was to become, for all of her modesty and her quietude, a figure of enormous importance, Chase-Riboud says. "In her brief, unhappy life, she became the Rosetta stone of scientific racism," the novelist contends.

Chase-Riboud's historical novel about Baartman, "Hottentot Venus," which is just hitting stores, tells her version of the story of the modest herdswoman, who was born in 1789 and died in 1816. It's written in a sweeping, kaleidoscopic style, with Sarah's melancholy thoughts interspersed with the musings of European scientists of the day and the cold calculations of the people around her.

It's a hauntingly compelling tale. After coming under the spell of an English physician with big entrepreneurial ambitions in 1810, Baartman traveled to England and France, where she was displayed nude and seminude to a vulgar, uncomprehending public as the Hottentot (from a Dutch word for "stutterer") Venus, a sideshow freak. "She was, in everything but name, a slave," Chase-Riboud says.

Aside from her African exoticism ("direct from the Dark Continent," said the fliers), Baartman had, by European standards, remarkable, outsized buttocks. She was studied by European naturalists and anthropologists as a possible "missing link" between animals and humans. She spent her final years as a part-time prostitute and, according to the author, an alcoholic and drug addict.

In an ultimate act of human objectification, after Baartman had died of tuberculosis, her remains -- her skeleton and her formaldehyde-preserved brain and genitalia -- were placed on display in France's Musee de l'Homme.

In Chase-Riboud's view, Baartman was used by 19th century scientists as the prime specimen in the scientific justification of white supremacy. The writer believes Baartman's life coincided with "the invention of race," and the Hottentot Venus was Exhibit A in the case for the subjugation of people of color in the European colonies.

Attitudes about race are usually accepted as a given, as instinctive, rather than being derived from human choices, Chase-Riboud said recently in her gold-paneled Paris apartment, overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens. She insists racism is an invention of the 19th century. "It's as if apartheid fell from the sky, like a Coca-Cola bottle, and nobody, not even God, could do anything about it," says Chase-Riboud, 64, who is dark, slim and has a penchant for wry, steely laughter.

In the novel, dates and historical characters correspond to Baartman's life. "I put her where she was in actual fact," the writer says. "The rest was a leap of imagination." Chase-Riboud's Sarah is dignified, vulnerable, bright (in fact, Baartman learned to read and write and, by the time of her death, she spoke three languages) and loyal.

"A lot has been written on Sarah Baartman, all from the outside, looking at her as an object," the writer says. "Despite all the literature, she's never had a voice of her own. I simply take her from the inside out." In doing so, Chase-Riboud says, she hopes to somehow redeem her -- "to bring her through the front door of history."

She responds testily to a question about why Baartman went along with her European promoters and was suspicious of the English abolitionists who tried to liberate her. The promoters used promises, threats and isolation to force her cooperation, the writer says. "She wasn't a modern feminist. She was a simple shepherd woman who was born the same year as the French Revolution."

Characters of history

This is her fifth historical novel. All have focused on "invisibles," characters who have little claim to power or fame but who somehow make a mark in the swirl of history. The first was "Sally Hemings" (Viking, 1979), about Thomas Jefferson's slave mistress. Chase-Riboud's book became a bestseller, intriguing its readers with its plausible scenario of secret love trysts (since proven even more plausible after DNA testing of Jefferson's descendants) and annoying the patrician Virginia historians who accused Chase-Riboud of besmirching the third president.

There followed "Valide," the story of a Muslim harem woman, and "Echo of Lions," a novel about the Amistad slave rebellion, since re-created in a Steven Spielberg movie. (The movie, "Amistad" was also the subject of a Chase-Riboud lawsuit, in which she claimed Spielberg had lifted ideas from her book without crediting her. The suit was settled out of court in her favor for "an undisclosed sum," she says now.)

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