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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
- Molly Rogers, “The slave daguerreotypes of the Peabody Museum: Scientific meaning and utility”, History of Photography, 30:1 (2006) 39-54, here 46; Penn Museum, Morton’s Life | Morton Crania Collection, (https://www.penn.museum/sites/morton/life.php ) accessed March 28, 2021.
- Anna Mae Duane, Educated for Freedom: the Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Schoolboys who Grew Up to Change a Nation ( New York: New York University Press, 2020) 76 -90.
- Harbinger, November 13 1887.
- Boston Statesman, December 4, 1847.
- Boston Cultivator, ‘The Bushman’ December 11, 1847.
- “Report upon an Individual of the Bushman Trihe of Hottentots, brought from the Cape of Good Hope, by Mr. Chase, United States Consul at the Cape. By the Committee of the Lyceum of Natural History of New-York, Arthur B. Stout, Woolcott Gibbs, John A. Smith, John L. Le Conte, C. Tellkampf”, New York Journal of Medicine and Collateral Sciences, Sep 1848; 2, 1, 151-156. https://archive.org/details/newyorkjournalo1184forr_0/page/n159/mode/1up?q=bushman
- Lyceum of Natural History of New York, ‘Report upon an Individual of the Bushman 1848 2/1, 151-157, here 151.
- Matthias van Rossum, Kleurrijke tragiek. De geschiedenis van slavernij in Azië onder de VOC, (Hilversum: Verloren , 2015).https://pure.knaw.nl/ws/portalfiles/portal/1571794/DEF_Van_Rossum_Kleurrijke_Tragiek_Slavernij_in_Azi_onder_de_VOC_binnenwerk_laatste_drukproef.pdf
- Linda Mbeki & Matthias van Rossum (2017) “Private slave trade in the Dutch Indian Ocean world: a study into the networks and backgrounds of the slavers and the enslaved in South Asia and South Africa,”, Slavery & Abolition, 38:1, 95-116.
- Elizabeth E. Eldredge , “Slave Raiding Across the Cape Frontier”, in: Elizabeth E. Eldredge and Fred Morton (eds.) Slavery in South Africa. Captive labor on the Dutch Frontier (London; New York: Routledge 2019 ) 93-126, here 96.
- Nigel Penn, “The British and the ‘Bushmen’: the massacre of the Cape San, 1795 to 1828”, Journal of Genocide Research, 15 /2,(2013) 183–200, here 185.
- Penn, The British and the ‘Bushmen’, 186.
- Eldredge, “Slave Raiding Across the Cape Frontier”, 98.
- José Manuel De Prada-Samper, “The forgotten killing fields: “San” genocide and Louis Anthing’s mission to Bushmanland, 1862-1863”. Historia 57/1 (2012), 72-187, here 180.
- Mohamed Adhikari, ‘A total extinction confidently hoped for: the destruction of Cape San society under Dutch colonial rule, 1700-1795’, Journal of Genocide Research 12 1-2(2010) 19-44, Norman M. Naimark, Genocide: a World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) 60-64. Penn, “The British and the ‘Bushmen’, 183.