Almost 200 years after she left Africa, in 2002 Sara Baartman was buried in her ancestral homeland with thousands of people in attendance. Shipped from Cape Town, she had been publicly exhibited in the popular entertainment venues of London and Paris as an African ‘Venus’ from 1810. Dead within five years, her body was quickly dissected and made into a museum specimen by Georges Cuvier, one of the leading scientists of the day. Ultimately, it took eight years to secure her return from the French government so that she could finally be laid to rest.
Crais and Scully’s extensive new research has produced a rich and interesting biography that is a worthwhile read even for those familiar with the story. As well as providing the most detailed account of Baartman’s life, the book is an illuminating insight into the broader contexts of colonial society at the Cape, the hustle and bustle of urban entertainment and abolition of the British slave trade. This gives readers a clear sense of how Baartman came to be on show abroad, why scientists were so interested in her body and the extensive negotiations that surrounded her return to Africa. The book ends with a fascinating account of how Baartman has become a symbol of Western exploitation and a focal point for contemporary identity politics in South Africa: a status perfectly captured by the choice to bury her on International Indigenous People’s Day and South Africa’s Women’s Day. Her role in racial science and the emergence of modern racism is overplayed and sometimes the book is too speculative, but on the whole there is a good balance. The real achievement of Crais and Scully’s book lies in its readability and the fresh insights it provides into the life of one of Africa’s most famous women.