Tag Archives: Ninetenth Century

Frederick Douglass in Britain: Online Teaching Resource

Frederick Douglass, c1847-52

Many thanks to postgraduate researcher Hannah-Rose Murray (MA Public History at Royal Holloway) for passing on this information about her research focused on Frederick Douglass’ time in Britain and the associated teaching resource that she has produced:

How many people in Britain have heard of Frederick Douglass? He is probably one of the most famous African Americans in the United States, but his sojourn in Britain has been largely forgotten on both sides of the Atlantic.

Born a slave in Maryland, he escaped and travelled to Britain between 1845-7, urging the British people to campaign against American slavery. Douglass created a sensation, and his experiences in this country deserve to be recognised. He was able to sharpen his powerful skills as an orator, and he established long-term friendships with British abolitionists, who supported him throughout his career as a social activist.

I first became aware of Douglass at University (2008). I read a speech by him, titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” This was a merciless attack on America’s concept of ‘liberty’, and I’ve been hooked ever since! For a Masters project, I created several teaching resources focusing on Douglass’s trip to Britain, and created a website – https://sites.google.com/site/frederickdouglassinbritain/

While I was researching Douglass, it became clear there was something missing – an analysis of the impact Douglass had on Britain. We can test this by reading contemporary newspapers, as they offer opinions on American slavery in general and on Douglass himself. Through this, we can understand how and why Douglass was so successful in Britain, particularly on a grassroots level. There are some great debates within the newspapers about slavery, and how far Britain should interfere, so it’s a great study of relations between the UK and the United States too.

This period of history is fascinating, and some of the controversies Douglass became involved in show that the issue of slavery was not confined to the American shore. For all of these reasons, I’m keen to spread the word about Frederick Douglass and his important trip here, to a British and an American audience!

A blue plaque to Frederick Douglass is currently being organised, with the tribute ceremony on 20February at Whitehead’s Grove, South Kensington. Currently, more donations are needed, so if you would like to make a contribution or find out more about the plaque, follow this link – http://www.nubianjak.com/default.aspx


A Living Man from Africa: Jan Tzatzoe, Xhosa Chief and Missionary, and the Making of Nineteenth-Century South Africa

Born into a Xhosa royal family around 1792 in South Africa, Jan Tzatzoe was destined to live in an era of profound change—one that witnessed the arrival and entrenchment of European colonialism. As a missionary, chief, and cultural intermediary on the eastern Cape frontier and in Cape Town and a traveler in Great Britain, Tzatzoe helped foster the merging of African and European worlds into a new South African reality. Yet, by the 1860s, despite his determined resistance, he was an oppressed subject of harsh British colonial rule. In this innovative, richly researched, and splendidly written biography, Roger S. Levine reclaims Tzatzoe’s lost story and analyzes his contributions to, and experiences with, the turbulent colonial world to argue for the crucial role of Africans as agents of cultural and intellectual change.

Yale University Press has recently published A Living Man From Africa: Jan Tzatzoe, Xhosa Chief and Missionary, and the Making of Nineteenth Century South Africa ($30 hardcover) by Roger S. Levine, Associate Professor of History at Sewanee: The University of the South.

This book is the first to be published in a new series, New Directions in Narrative History. It brings the colonial encounter to life while providing a fascinating account of the South Africa of the nineteenth century and one of her most interesting sons: Jan Tzatzoe – world traveler, chief, missionary, and cultural intermediary.  For more information visit the publisher’s website at:


Booker T Washington: Lifting the Veil of Ignorance?

A new profile has been added to the Black Atlantic Resource which explores the life, philosophy and contributions of Booker T. Washington in the United States.

Labelled by some as a submissive ‘Uncle Tom’ character in the story of the post-emancipation era, it’s time to readdress the role of Booker T Washington. A former-slave who worked his way up to become the most influential African-American of his generation, Washington had clear ideas as to the best ways for other black Americans to improve their own lives and, on a larger scale, improve the African-American experience as a whole. He was a successful teacher, author, political figure and orator.

Washington’s strategy was accomodationist. Promoting self-help and manual skills as oppose to liberal arts he believed that, after slavery, black Americans would be able to contribute and be accepted more easily and significantly in the wider national community through this approach. He argued that it helped African-Americans immediately and did not threaten the white community so garnered a significant degree of support among both groups, stating “A race, like an individual, lifts itself up by lifting others up.”

Due to Washington’s massive impact and influence sculptor Charles Keck created a piece for the Tuskgee Institute in 1922. It is called Lifting the Veil of Ignorance (click here for an image). Washington is depicted lifting a veil from a slave. This represents his goal of bringing African-Americans a better life through a better education. The slave crouches on a plow and anvil, which symbolises the Washington and Tuskegee’s focus on agriculture and industry.

However many came to disagree with this focus. Was Washington lifting the veil of ignorance or keeping it in place? In his novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison described his response to this debate: “I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”

Considering how the black minority in the United States should deal with oppression after slavery formed one of the most significant debates in African American history. W.E.B Du Bois believed Washington’s strategy was flawed. He proposed that blacks should constantly challenge their position in society and that the ‘talented tenth’ would demonstrate their potential. Marcus Garvey agreed that African Americans should embrace self-help and improve their economic base through manual work; however he worked towards total separation of the races.

This division of strategies and philosophies between three leading African-American figures of the early twentieth century divided not only the energies of the wider African-American population in the United States but also became a major obstacle for collective progress. How far should this effect our views on Washington and his contribution?

Click here to read more about Washington and continue the debate by commenting below.

Book Reviews: Recent Historical Scholarship

The Black Atlantic Resource presents reviews of two of the most recent publications which expand understandings of U.S. African-American relationships with Haitians and their revolutionary history:

Millery Polyné, From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan Americanism, 1870–1964, 2010 (University Press of Florida: Gainesville)

From Douglass to Duvalier is an important new work, situated in the ‘emerging field of Hemispheric American Studies’, which presents new approaches to the role of Haiti in African-American consciousness.  This work moves through a number of chronologically ordered case studies which demonstrate U.S. – Haitian African American relations, between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. Polyné considers intra-racial interactions between these two groups to “have been central to the spirit of the pan-American movement because  

… read more

Maurice Jackson and Jacqueline Bacon (eds) African Americans and the Haitian Revolution: Selected Essays and Historical Documents, 2010 (Routledge: London and New York)

Jackson and Bacon’s edited volume is a collection of recent work which provides key contextualisation of African Americans interaction with the Haitian Revolution from the late eighteenth to the twentieth century. These essays and case-studies presented as a collection are so compelling because stylistically mirroring the historical ebb and flow of ideas across ‘porous borders’, the works in this volume converse with each other. They present a variety of evidence which unarguably attests to the enduring influence which Haiti has and continues to have on the actions and consciousness of African-Americans. From Toussaint inspired soldiers fighting the American Civil War while singing ‘La Marseillaise’ to

… read more

Please leave your comments below.

From Biography to Ghost Story: The Search for Sara Baartman

When historians Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully began research for Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography, they intended to uncover details about Baartman in the years before she became known as the Hottentot Venus. Aware that most scholarship has focused on her pre- and post-mortem display as a scientific oddity, exotic curiosity, and freak of nature, the authors wondered: “What if we looked at the totality of her life and resisted the temptation of reading her history backward as a story of inevitable victimization?” (p. 4) This question led them to five countries on three continents where they conducted research in more than a dozen archives and libraries and interviewed possible relatives of Baartman. Unfortunately, they discovered only fragmentary scraps of enticing information that offered little real insight into their elusive subject.

Crais and Scully’s frustration over this lack of evidence is palpable throughout the text. They note, for example, that Baartman gave only three interviews; of those, two are probably fiction. The third, which took place in London, was conducted in Dutch (Baartman’s second language) under the scrutiny of court officers “and then translated and handed down to history as a paraphrase” (p. 5). The authors also outline some of the more disheartening logistical aspects of their research experience: a Parisian archivist denied them access to a centuries-old document for fear of causing a “diplomatic incident,” according to an archivist quoted by the authors (p.183), and dealing with the South African government proved challenging. (One important document was said to have disappeared.) At the beginning of the book, the authors openly admit the defeat of their original goal: “We will always know more about the phantom that haunts the Western imagination [the Hottentot Venus] … than we do about the life of Sara Baartman” (p. 6).

Nevertheless, Crais and Scully breathe life into Baartman as thoroughly as they can, frequently situating her story within historical events and physical geography to compensate for the gaping absences in the archival record. Throughout the book, they correct a few misconceptions and provide some thoughtful analysis. For example, they emphasize that Baartman was born in South Africa in the 1770s and not in 1789 as is generally thought. Her earlier birth is significant because it means she witnessed the shift from an African to a colonial way of life. By the time Baartman crossed the sea to London in 1810, she had lived and worked in Cape Town and its environs for more than a decade. When her feet touched European soil, she was “a worldly woman in her thirties, not an innocent child recently brought from Africa’s interior” (p. 57).

Even so, Baartman never was a free woman, and males hoping to profit from her otherness largely dictated her life. One of her owners, Hendrik Cesars (a Free Black), first displayed her in 1808 to medical patients in Cape Town to pay off his debts. About this situation, Crais and Scully note: “In all likelihood Sara became something of an early nineteenth-century exotic dancer and may have provided sex as well” (p. 51). Later, during Baartman’s time in London, the authors “can well imagine that the relationship between Cesars and Sara moved, if it had not been so previously, to one of sexual intimacy” (p. 81). While this type of conjecture, which appears throughout the text, adds detail to the authors’ historical analysis, it opposes their stated intention for this project. Since Crais and Scully chose to exclude such educated guesswork from the footnotes (perhaps in an effort to lengthen a relatively short book), parts of the text reinforce Baartman’s status as a victim, a blank signifier (or “ghost,” as the title states) who, throughout history, has been molded to fit others’ agendas.

Baartman herself may have attempted to fulfill others’ expectations, and Crais and Scully argue that an astute comprehension of European desires coupled with an impressive acting talent made her a convincing performer. She also may have altered her life story–leaving out certain details and embellishing others–to suit various interviewers. Ironically, assuming that Baartman was a savvy strategist in terms of her image, the same tactics that benefited her while alive probably contributed to the erasure of her true self from history.

Although the authors make repeated efforts to grant their subject agency, the enticing tidbits of information that suggest Baartman may have exercised her own will seem forced. The authors interpret Baartman’s refusal to allow Georges Cuvier to examine her genitals, even while artists rendered and scientists measured the rest of her body, as “a profound statement of self” (p. 135). But, only five pages later, the dramatic way in which they describe the fate of Baartman’s body after her 1815 death seems to undermine her act of defiance: “Now she could no longer resist their entreaties. Spreading her legs open, the men examined Sara’s genitals, to their delight discovering her ‘apron.’ Science as rape, institutionalized” (p. 140).

Another way in which Crais and Scully emphasize Baartman’s agency is by stressing that she was a multilingual businesswoman who, at least to some degree, controlled her image as the Hottentot Venus. In a move unusual for the time, Baartman held the copyright and was the official publisher of two famous Frederick Christian Lewis aquatints (dated September 1810 and March 1811) that represent her in indigenous dress; both were converted into broadsheet advertisements for her performances. Since Baartman was the only person in London who had knowledge of Khoekhoe clothing, body paint, and accoutrements, the authors “think that Baartman sought to render her depictions with verisimilitude, even if the overall design of the poster was out of her control” (p. 75). Further revealing the absence of her power (after suggesting its presence), however, they deem it unlikely that Baartman saw royalties from her own image. They also argue that Alexander Dunlop, Baartman’s owner at that time and the originator of the Hottentot Venus idea, may have made her the publisher in an attempt to allay Londoners’ fears that she was being exploited. Supporting this theory, Crais and Scully emphasize that the second aquatint, which appeared in the wake of the London court case that questioned Baartman’s liberty, presents a more conservative rendering of its subject than the first.

Confusing to the reader, however, is that Dunlop “got rid [reviewer’s emphasis] of the tight body stocking that suggested a nude Hottentot Venus” in October 1810 to make Baartman’s performance more conservative (p. 91). This apparently was an attempt to forestall additional criticism about Baartman’s possible slave status. However, according to Crais and Scully, the second, less conservative aquatint presented Baartman in a body stocking: “Lewis produced a second aquatint in March 1811, depicting Sara closer to how she was then being exhibited” (p. 75). The authors state that the depiction is not an exact replication of Baartman’s costume and note that the second image is less revealing since it presents her from the side rather than the front. Nevertheless, the contradiction in the body stocking discussion needs acknowledgement and explication.

Another point of confusion is Crais and Scully’s conflation of the Khoekhoe and the Gonaqua peoples. While they state in a footnote that “[r]econstructing Khoekhoe culture and society is notoriously vexing” (p. 186), in the text they merely note that the mostly pastoral Khoekhoe lived among the Gonaqua. They then repeatedly speak of these two peoples as one, as in the following passage: “Strokes somewhat bolder than one would usually have found among the early Gonaqua of the Eastern lands paint her [Baartman’s] face. She holds a staff, smokes a pipe, and wears shoes–the latter clearly not part of original Khoekhoe dress” (p. 75). Is the reader supposed to gather that the two peoples’ material cultures are interchangeable? This lack of clarity weakens research findings the authors present as straightforward fact. For example, Crais and Scully note: “There is always a tension within European reportage. Seventeenth-century observers typically portrayed Khoekhoe as a dirty, even vile people. In the more romantic imagination in the second half of the eighteenth century, Gonaqua often earned the reputation for being kind and generous, and their women fair and beautiful” (p. 15). Are the Khoekhoe and Gonaqua here being discussed as two distinct peoples?

Two particularly strong aspects of the book are the authors’ contrast of the cultural climates in London and Paris and their discussion of Baartman’s significance to South African nation-building in the 1990s. The London public and the city’s legal system were critical of Baartman’s display and concerned about her status as a possible slave. (In 1810, The Case of the Hottentot Venus was brought before the King’s Bench; the ruling declared Baartman free.) By the time Baartman performed in Paris, however, her reputation as the Hottentot Venus preceded her; she had a predetermined role to fill. Moreover, Parisians were seeking entertainment during a particularly stressful time in French history. Public outcry was nonexistent when S. Reaux, who purchased Baartman from Taylor in 1815, and displayed her for ten hours a day at the Palais-Royal, placed a collar around her neck: “Here the pubic mark of slavery, the collar, elicited no complaints” (p. 128). Even when Parisian journalists were sympathetic to Baartman’s plight, “[t]he public understood Sara Baartman in the context of a wider cultural enthusiasm of the exotic” (p. 130).

In South Africa, Baartman’s post-mortem treatment also was less than desirable as various groups attempted to “claim” her and take possession of her remains, which were repatriated from the Museé de l’Homme in August 2002. After much controversy and outcry, she was buried in the outskirts of Hankey (near Port Elizabeth) simply because one primary source suggested she was born in that area. Although Baartman had become a symbol for South Africa and for women everywhere, her gravesite fell into disrepair within months and was even vandalized. Metal bars now surround her grave: “Returned to South Africa, Sara Baartman remains behind bars, imprisoned still” (p. 168).

Throughout Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography, Crais and Scully stress the difficulties of attempting to draw conclusions from piecemeal secondary sources. They also examine the power dynamics that problematize seemingly straightforward facts. Unfortunately, large gaps in the archival record thwarted their attempts to write a straightforward biography (thus the wise placement of “A Ghost Story” before “a Biography” in the subtitle). As a result, they use a fair amount speculation to construct a plausible portrait of Baartman–they bestow her with hopes, desires, and fears. This approach, which is more creative writing exercise than factual analysis, is flawed as scholarship. Since the authors criticize others who have spoken for Baartman throughout history, it is also contradictory. Nevertheless, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus may be a necessary addition to scholarship about Baartman. The product of an exhaustive research mission, it indicates that the search for  details about Baartman’s life can now end, for “her story … also is a cautionary tale about silence and the limits of history, and about what happens when someone, or something, comes to stand for too much, when the past can bear no more” (p. 6).

Citation: Joyce M. Youmans. Review of Crais, Clifton C.; Scully, Pamela, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. H-AfrArts, H-Net Reviews. September, 2010.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=29642

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.