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Exploited in Life and Death, South African to Go Home

January 30, 2002

Exploited in Life and Death, South African to Go Home


PARIS, Jan. 29 — The young Khoikhoi woman who boarded a ship for England from South Africa in 1810 apparently was convinced that she would make a fortune there.

Instead, she was put on display around Europe as a sexual freak, paraded naked on runways by a keeper who obliged her to walk, sit or stand so that audiences could better see her protruding backside and large genital organs.

Even when she died, destitute and diseased, the "Hottentot Venus," as she was called, did not get a decent burial. Napoleon Bonaparte's surgeon general made a plaster cast of her body and put it, along with jars of her pickled body parts, on display at the national Mus´e de L'homme.

But Saartjie Baartman may finally be going home, closing a particularly sordid chapter in Europe's colonial history.

Today, the French Senate voted unanimously to return Ms. Baartman's remains to her homeland after an often emotional debate.

"This young woman was treated as if she was something monstrous," said Nicolas About, the senator who sponsored the bill. "But where in this affair is the true monstrosity?"

For many South Africans, the vote has been too long in coming.

With the end of apartheid, the image of Ms. Baartman's body rotting on the shelves of a Paris museum had become a rallying point for a new movement to reclaim the country's history.

Many saw the young woman's story as a metaphor for what had happened to their country during centuries of human conquest.

Her proper burial was seen as a necessary part of rebuilding self-respect. In the past, they were also derogatorily called Hottentots.

Former President Nelson Mandela also took up the cause of trying to get the young woman's remains a proper resting place, asking the late President Fran‚ois Mitterrand for his help in the matter when the two men met in South Africa in 1994.

Two years later, South Africa's foreign minister, Alfred Nzo, again formally raised the issue with France's minister of operation, Jacques Godfrain. "The return of South Africa to the international community marked the beginning of the process of healing and restoring of our national dignity and humanity," Mr. Nzo said at the time in a statement. "The process will not be complete while Saartjie Baartman's remains are still kept in a museum."

But no progress was made.

South African officials said today that they were pleasantly surprised to see that the bill to release Ms. Baartman's remains finally appeared to be on track, with passage tentatively scheduled for Feb. 19. French officials said privately that they believed that museum and government officials were initially very reluctant to give in to South Africa's request for fear of opening a Pandora's box: Other countries might start asking for other exhibits back.

The Senate report on the issue that accompanies the new legislation does not deal with that issue, but describes French foot-dragging on returning the remains as showing "grave management dysfunction" and "incompetence fighting with absurdity."

In the report, unidentified French officials are quoted as saying that, since they had not heard from the South Africans on the issue in a while, nothing needed to be done.

The report notes that Ms. Baartman's remains were removed from public display in 1976 and are no longer deemed to serve any scientific purpose.

Jean Le Garrec, who heads the National Assembly's cultural affairs committee, said he had no doubt that the Senate proposals would be approved.

"As soon as it was brought to my attention it was very clear that this had to happen," Mr. Le Garrec said, noting that as a child he had been brought to see the plaster cast of the "Hottentot Venus."

"I was outraged even then and I should have acted long ago but I did not," he said. "Mr. About did it first."

Not much is known about Saartkie Baartman's early life but that she was born in the late 18th century in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. By the time she was about 20 she had migrated toward Cape Town, where records say she was living in a small shack in 1810.

That year she met a British ship's doctor, William Dunlop, who persuaded her to travel to England with promises that she could make a fortune by displaying her body. There, contemporary descriptions say, she was paraded on a stage, led by a "keeper." Eventually, her treatment came to the attention of anti-slavery activists who asked the government to stop the shows. But a London court apparently found that she had entered into a contract with the doctor.

In 1814, she was brought to France, where she was part of a traveling circus. Her body was analyzed by scientists, including Napoleon's surgeon general, George Cuvier, even while she was alive. He apparently first met Ms. Baartman, on display as a naked and exotic savage dressed only in feathers, at a high society ball.

Several "scientific" papers were written about her at the time, using her as proof of the superiority of the white race. She died in 1815, probably suffering from tuberculosis and possibly syphilis.

Dr. Cuvier made a plaster cast of her body before dissecting it. He removed her skeleton and cut out her brain and her genitals, which he put on display.

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