Who Owns History? An Experience Of Black History Month In London

By Sarah Hancock | 11 December 2006

Another of the runners up in our Black History Journalism Competition, Sarah Hancock explores the tension between the rival claims of history telling in Europe and the original owners of objects, songs - even bodies - from Africa, Latin America and Australasia.

"I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white -
I have come to take you home
where I will sing for you
for you have brought me peace."
Diana Ferrus 'A poem for Sarah Bartmann'

photo shows black woman mostly naked smoking a pipe

A contemporary image of Sarah Baartman describes her as 'now exhibiting in London' . Courtesy of Westminster Archives.

A few weeks ago I discovered the story of Sarah (or Saartije) Bartmann, a woman of the Khoi people, born in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in 1879. In 1810 a British Naval Surgeon, William Dunlop, took her away from her homeland to London. From that point on, her life was a sad tale of abuse and unhappiness at the hands of British and French people, before and after her untimely death.

Once her body had been cruelly cut up and used to fuel 18th century scientists' curiosity, Sarah's skeleton was put on display at the Musee de L'homme for almost 200 years. Upon hearing her story, many people, including her fellow countrywoman, Diana Ferrus, campaigned for her return to South Africa. Finally, on the 29th January 2002, the French Senate approved legislation to repatriate the remains of Sarah Bartmann.

What's remarkable about this story is not only the tragic and inhumane treatment of Sarah, but also the importance placed on her repatriation. This broken link, this ancestor displaced, was a source of constant grief for her people. I discovered this same powerful need for continuity resonating in two occasions that followed soon after.

To celebrate Black History Month, Kabula, a community arts and culture group based in London and Rio de Janeiro, launched a week of activities based around Capoeira Angola and Afro-Brazilian music at a party in Canning House.

Canning House is the home of a non-political, non-profit making organisation that aims to stimulate understanding between Britain, Spain, Portugal and Latin America. Its home is a mansion in classic Regency style Belgravia, a part of London which epitomises the grandeur and wealth of the era when Britain's empire was thriving.

This evening of music and culture 'From Africa to Brazil: Rhythms of life' began with a talk from Dr. Matthias Röhrig-Assunção (Essex University) who traced the journey that combat games and musical traditions made across the Atlantic with the enslaved.

Following that, Mestre Carlão took us on another journey of rhythms through Brazil, tracing each drumbeat back to its origin. Finally, the Georgian drawing room was taken over with a demonstration of capoeira and samba drums that had everyone (and the room itself) reverberating with rhythmic beats. In a wonderful spontaneous moment, a visiting singer from Zulu Land joined Mestre Carlão on the stage to sing, fusing the traditions and transcending the distances of the journey that had been described.

One of the members of the audience asked a question about this obsession with linking to tradition and whether it was perhaps preventing the natural progression and modernisation of them.

The answer to this was clearly yes and no. The event was about connecting with the origins of these traditions and about respecting where and what they came from. However, it was also about demonstrating and sharing. The traditions were continuing, they were adopted by people from all over the world and were being celebrated in a room that would have once stood more for the authority that had tried to crush the links to Africa, than the organisation it houses now, which celebrates those links.

People from many cultures, are changing to embrace those other cultural traditions; the traditions themselves are changing in order to be embraced. They must be embraced in order to continue, and yet the new disciples feel the need to learn and respect where these traditions began in the true 'uncontaminated' form.

Certainly, what I took away from that evening was a numinous appreciation of a link to the past.

The drum beats be-gin-nings: this is where I'm from; this is the heartbeat of my kind.

photo shows maoris with sticks and white cloaks walking through the halls of the british museum

Maoris at the British Museum. Courtesy of Ngati Ranana

The next day I was aware of this difficult tension again - this time in front of an exhibit at the British Museum's Power and Taboo - Sacred objects from the Pacific. The British Museum, like the architecture of Canning House, echoes with its past colonial conduct. Now the museum is an extraordinary source of teaching and learning about other cultures. But many artefacts are here because of Britain's dominating past relationships with these places and can never be completely free from that.

The exhibit pitches the cultural artefacts as a spiritual and exotic time set aside, 'before the European settlers had made much impact on the region' but is also quick to validate the contemporary interest in the culture by telling us that 'despite the destructive impact of colonialism, many traditional skills are remembered and practiced today.' Again, the belief that continuity gives status and validation is clearly there. It explains the complex origin of the word 'tabu' and explores the Pacific Islanders' relationships with the gods, spirituality and divine presence in objects, places and activities. It includes some very beautiful and strange objects to look at and learn from: feathered cloaks, pictures of tattooed people, canoes and sculptures representing Gods.

Towards the end of the exhibit we come to A'a, a very important object in the collection for Europeans and the Pacific Islanders themselves. Indeed, the text surrounding this object explains that several islanders have made the journey to the museum to pay homage to the A'a in recent years. For those people, this object (more than an object) of their ancestors was worth a trip across the world. It was obviously vital for them to connect with A'a.

The last room of the exhibit is home to a poem which gives voice to the artefacts themselves lamenting their misplacement in the 'cold' museum. There are whispers here of the story of Sarah. People seem to need this link to their past. A quote from a contemporary anthropologist reinforces this, and makes me wonder how we can accept that the Museum still holds these precious parts of peoples' identities.

I returned to my field site of Pocobaya in the Bolivian highlands over the Easter break. On this occasion I was collecting stories of the distant past as a means of understanding how people in the Aymara Village of Pocobaya articulate a sense of indigeneity. Stories of the past tell us how people came to be"
Andrew Canessa

So is it as important for me to learn about other cultures and traditions, to become more empowered personally by this knowledge, as it is for people to hold the things which represent their past close to themselves, away from hands that may dissect them or heads that may conceptually change them?

Perhaps we cannot answer this question, or resolve this tension inherent in the concept of continuity. I had the privilege to learn on all of these occasions that I wouldn't have had if these cultures were not shared with me.

But I also felt the strong beat even in my bones as the drum beats from Brazil met with the haunting tones of their sister from Africa. There is power in this obsession with roots, and there is honour in this search for continuity.

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