Peace at last for Saartjie

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The story of Saartjie Baartman is yet another shameful episode in Europe’s colonial past. Saartjie was brought to Europe from her native Africa in the early 19th century where she was exhibited as a sexual freak before dying an impoverished prostitute in Paris. Now France is making belated amends for her appalling treatment.

South Africa's ethnic Khoisan envisage a national funeral for the remains of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, on their expected return from France, where she was treated as an exhibit.

"Pleased is not the word," said Willa Boezak, a rights activist for descendants of southern Africa's oldest known inhabitants. "It will give new impetus to the struggle of the Khoisan population in South Africa."

The French Senate on Tuesday approved a bill proposing that Baartman's remains be repatriated, nearly 200 years after she was exhibited in Europe as a sexual freak and scientific curiosity.

The lower house of the French parliament, the National Assembly, is expected to pass the law before the end of June.

"We are feeling very positive and excited about the prospect of her coming back," said Boezak, a representative on the Khoisan legacy project of the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA).

"This is a very, very long story. One of the first things that the Khoisan nation ... put before (former president) Nelson Mandela in 1995 was the repatriation of the human remains of Saartjie Baartman.

"Because of her sad story she became a symbol for us ... of the subjugation and humiliation of Khoisan women through all the ages," Boezak told South Africa's SAPA news agency.

The remains were on public display at the Museum of Mankind in Paris until 1974.

"(When) we celebrate her homecoming it will be a spiritual ceremony," Boezak said. "It will be a reburial. It will not be a Cape Town thing, it will not be a Griqua thing, it will be a national thing."

The Griquas, a Khoisan sub-group, claim Baartman as an ancestor.

Born on the Gamtoos River in what is now South Africa in 1789, Baartman was taken to London in 1810 by a British ship's doctor, William Dunlop, who persuaded her that she could make a fortune by displaying her body to curious Europeans.

On arriving in Britain, she was paraded around circuses, museums, bars and universities, where she had to show off her protruding posterior, an anatomical feature of her semi-nomadic people, and her genitals, which had outsized vulva lips.

Baartman died an impoverished prostitute in Paris in 1816.

She became a source for grotesque stereotypes about race and African sexuality, to be blamed in part on the top European scientific minds of the day, which called them Hottentots and Bushmen.

The name Khoisan includes two ethnic groups, the Khoikhoi and the San, who have honey-coloured skin and stock their body fats in the buttocks rather than in the thighs and belly. Some of their rock drawings date back 26,000 years.

Boezak said the return of Baartman's remains would help bring about the cultural and spiritual unity that the Khoisan people needed.

Many of them were absorbed into the so-called coloured population under apartheid classification, in the wake of mass displacement and deaths from smallpox after settlers arrived in the 17th century.

Griqua chief and member of the Griqua National Conference (GNC) Sammy Jansen said that though the conference had not yet had anything in writing from the French or South African governments about the new law, it was "quite excited".

"It's something close to our heart; it's not humane that one of our ancestors should be displayed on shelves in another country. We believe that if people die, they must get a proper burial," Jansen said.

SAHRA chief executive Pumla Madiba said the news was "long overdue".

"SAHRA is more than happy. It's a stage in the freedom of a nation, and the reversal of things that ought not to have happened."

The remains are French national patrimony, and as such they cannot leave France permanently unless allowed to do so under a specific law.

© Agence France Presse, 2002

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