After 2 centuries, rest and respect

'Hottentot Venus': The body of a native African woman exhibited and exploited in 19th-century Europe is last returned to her homeland.

May 04, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - She was a young South African servant who in 1810 set sail for England from this seaside city, dreaming of riches. But Saartjie Baartman never found them.

Instead, she became a sexual curiosity in a London freak show. During her exhibitions, a "keeper" unlocked her from a cage, paraded her naked across a stage and ordered her to sit, stand and walk so she could titillate audiences. Tickets to see the "Hottentot Venus," as she was known, cost two shillings apiece.

Death did little to change Baartman's plight. Napoleon's physician dissected her body, and bottled her brain and genitals, which were put on display with her skeleton in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris until 1974, when her remains were squirreled away in a storage room.

Yesterday, crowds gathered once again to see Baartman - this time to welcome her home.

Draped in a South African flag, her casket arrived at Cape Town International Airport yesterday morning on a commercial flight, ending a journey that had spanned nearly 200 years marked by heartache and frustration as South Africans fought for her return.

For many South Africans, Baartman became a symbol of the racism that Africans endured at the hands of Europeans under colonialism. But she also became a haunting reminder of scientific thought in the 19th century, when Africans were classified as sub-human, their looks and behavior often measured against those of animals.

"This is not the homecoming of a single person. This is the homecoming of a nation," said Peter Marais, premier of South Africa's Western Cape province, speaking to the 200 people who turned out to honor Baartman. "Today we have recaptured our heritage, and I'm very, very proud."

Men and women, some with tears in their eyes, gave Baartman a welcome befitting a national hero. The South African Navy Band, dressed in crisp white uniforms, struck up the national anthem. At the center of the hall, a zebra-skin-pattern rug led to Baartman's casket, containing Baartman's skeleton, preserved remains and a life-size body cast.

Baartman's return has added significance for members of South Africa's Khoisan community, the original inhabitants of Africa's southern tip. A number of Khoisan tribes are reclaiming their heritage and cultural identity after being classified as mixed-raced "coloreds" under apartheid.

Baartman was a member of the Griquas, one of the Khoisan tribes. In the early 19th century, Europeans would have referred to her as a "Hottentot," a derogatory term coined by Dutch settlers to describe the Khoisan language of clicking sounds.

"We as Khoisan descendants saw Baartman as a part of our struggle," said Roderick Williams, a member of the Griqua National Conference, representing the country's 20,000 Griquas. "This is a day we can say people start to recognize us as human beings," he said.

Newspapers and television stations here have prepared for her arrival for weeks. Yesterday, the state-run news program aired a live broadcast of the plane carrying Baartman's remains from Paris landing in Johannesburg before they were transferred to the plane that flew to Cape Town.

During her short life in South Africa, Baartman never received such attention. Born in 1789 in the Eastern Cape, Baartman moved with her family to Cape Town, where Baartman took a job as servant for a farmer's family.

Little is known about Baartman's life except that in 1810, she caught the eye of William Dunlop, an English ship doctor visiting Cape Town. Baartman's large buttocks and genitals - a common characteristic among Khoisan women - fascinated Dunlop. At his urging, Baartman agreed to sail to England, where she was promised she would earn a fortune going on display.

"The poor, naive young lady accepted with perhaps stars in her eyes," said Phillip Tobias, a professor in the department of anatomical sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who has studied Baartman's life and was instrumental in negotiating her return.

Baartman performed in shows on Piccadilly Square and elsewhere in London and offered viewings for the city's elite. But several months into her exhibition, an anti-slavery group, outraged at the public performances, took Dunlop and his business partners to court, demanding an end to the public shows.

In a three-hour court appearance, Baartman testified that she had entered the agreement willingly. The court dismissed the case. It is unclear what role Dunlop played in her testimony, Tobias said.

"How free was she to say what she did in court? Had she been coached? There is room for doubt," Tobias said.

The publicity surrounding the case helped end the exhibitions. According to church records, Baartman was baptized in Manchester in 1811, married a West Indian man and had two children.

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