1847-1848 Omo

W. & F. Langenheim, Daguerreotype, African youth, portrait (1848), Collection Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University, id.nr. 35-5-10/53069

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University holds in its collection a daguerreotype from 1848, made by the established Philadelphian brothers Langenheim. The daguerreotype was commissioned by Samuel George Morton (1819-1850), the craniologist whose scientific inquiry served the intents and purposes of white supremacy. 1 The image is described as “African youth. Mounted daguerreotype in case, young boy in school -boy style uniform. Three- quarter view to waist.”
In her latest book, Anna Mae Duane unearthed the story of the person portrayed. Born in southern Africa as Omo, he was exhibited in Boston and became known as “Henry the little Bushman”. In 1849 he died of cholera in the New York Colored Orphan Asylum. 2

advertisement The Daily Atlas, December 12, 1847. The Boston Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts was establised in 1841 by Moses Kimball and functioned as a natural history museum, zoo, wax museum, theatre and art gallery.

Newspapers announcing Omo’s arrival spoke of him as: “a specimen of nature’s production, this evidently connecting link between the animal and rational works of the great Creator.” 3 According to the Boston Statesman, the “Bushmen are supposed to be the next link in the chain to the ourang outang.”4 The Boston Cultivator described the private exhibition at the Boston Museum for “distinguished medical men.” Omo stood on a table with the exhibitor by his side. Meanwhile, the “scientific individuals” carried out measurements, some spectators pulled Omo’s hair, touched his head and poked his ribs, to establish he was a “genuine specimen of the South African race.” 5

Sarony & Major, Litograph, New York journal of medicine (1848). Omo sat two times for the artists who made the lithograph. Source: https://archive.org/details/newyorkjournalo1184forr_0/page/n159/mode/1up?q=bushman

A committee of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York concluded 18-year old Omo had the intellect “like that of a child of 6 or 7 years. […] his mind is too immature to be capable of any serious employment.” The examiners considered this a positive outcome, especially when Omo was compared to “children of savage tribes and those African ones.” Hence it would be incorrect to “stigmatize the Bushmen as the lowest in the scale of mental capacity. He is decidedly intelligent, quick in his perceptions, and possessed of a full share of vivacity.” 6

the logic of the specimen bends both time and space around the Black body, somehow always returning it “home” to slavery […] in the free city of Boston, an African youth found his body held up as commodity, assessed, if not for immediate labor, then for evidence that his race was suited for noting else. […] Certainly he received a treatment similar to that of slaves subject to the auction block […]

Anna Mae Duane, Educated for Freedom (2020) p. 79.

Omo came to Boston as the property of Isaac Chase, the first American consul to the Cape of Good Hope. Chase wrote: “the Bushman which I have brought from South Africa, came into my possession between four and five years ago, from the hands of a trader, who (according to his own account), picked him up in a dying state, while passing through the Bushman country.” 7 I would like to suggest Omo’s plight reflects the enslavement and extirpation that were inflicted on the indigenous inhabitants of southern Africa from the onset of Dutch colonial settlement and expansion.

Widow of Jacob van Meurs (ed.) Map of the Cape of Good Hope and a view of Table Bay (1682). Collection National Library of The Netherlands, id.nr. 388 A 9 part II, after p. 6.
Source: https://www.atlasofmutualheritage.nl/nl/Kaart-Zuid-Afrika-gezicht-Tafelbaai.5654

In 1652 the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie – VOC) established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope, to restock ships on the long sea voyage between Europe and the trading centres in Asia. Dutch historian Matthias van Rossum has conclusively demonstrated the importance of slave labor throughout different parts of the VOC-empire. 8
The extensive shipping network of the VOC allowed for a constantly changing slave trade. From the Cape colony, the VOC undertook slaving expeditions to Mozambique and Madagascar. Moreover, enslaved people were transported from the eastern possessions of the company, notably along the southwest coast of India and the Indonesian archipelago. In the era of legal slave trade (1652-1808) the VOC owned a few thousand “company slaves” in the Cape colony. However, the majority of the enslaved population was owned by private individuals, such as high ranking VOC-officers and proprietors of grain and wine estates. 9

Commando raids

Jan Brandes, Khoikhoi and colonists on the plains of the Cape (1786). In the foreground two Khoikhoi men, followed by two men on horseback, one of whom carries a rifle. In the background a trekboer who returns from Cape Town to his farm. The man walking next to his cart is probably enslaved. As early as the 1730s, commando’s captured Khoikhoi on the western Cape frontier and bound them to servitude Collection Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, id.nr NG-2017-14. Source: http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.667073

Contrary to private estate owners, the so-called trekboers (Dutch for “migrating farmers”) lacked the financial resources to participate in the legal overseas slave trade. From 1657 onwards, the VOC encouraged independent farmers to cultivate the land. Trekboers penetrated the south-western Cape, impinging on the territories of the Khoikhoi herders. Within half a century, these indigenous inhabitants of the Cape peninsula were dispossessed of their land and subjected to forced labor, a process that was completed by 1800. 10
As they moved beyond the arable south-western Cape, the trekboers met with fierce resistance from a diverse constellation of hunter-gatherers, now commonly referred to as “San”. The trekboers used the derogatory appellation Bosjesmans (Dutch for “Bushmen”), indicating they were regarded as a different species to humanity. By the 1770s coordinated attacks of the San had brought colonial expansion into the interior to a standstill. 11

Trekboers prepared to leave for a commando, (ca 1836). Collection Zuid- Afrikahuis, Amsterdam, id.nr. 6.3

The trekboers retaliated with a commando system to crush resistance. Large scale commandos divested vast territories of their inhabitants to open them to the Dutch pastoralists. It was common practise to kill adult San men and enslave the women and children. 12
The slave raids became one of the principal sources of labor and continued until the second half of the nineteenth century. From 1775 onwards, the servitude of captured children was legalized by the so-called “inboekstelsel” (Dutch for: “register system”.) According to Eldredge, the inboekstelsel was “as oppressive as slavery from its inception.” The children were tied as “apprentices” to a household until they were 25 years. However, the law ensuring liberation when captives reached that age, was not enforced.13

When the British seized control of the Cape Colony (1806-1870), they created “Bushmanland” a reserve for the San in the arid north. Nevertheless, the authorities were no able to prevent continuous incursions of the trekboers. Commandos between the late 1840s and the 1860s were not intent on enslaving the San. In the words of De Prada Samper, the operations “can only be understood as part of a premeditated and planned campaign aimed at the complete extermination of the San inhabitants of Bushmanland.” 14 Several authors have stated the massacres committed upon the San in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, amounted to genocide. 15