The Return of the "Hottentot Venus"
It was surely a much longer sojourn abroad than she had bargained for, but almost 200 years after leaving South Africa, Sara Baartman is finally coming home. After eight years of pressure from the South African government, on January 29, the French Senate voted overwhelmingly to repatriate the remains of South Africa's most tragic exile, some 187 years after her death in Paris.
Baartman's tale throws uncomfortable issues of racism, sexism and colonialism into sharp relief. Originally from the Eastern Cape, Baartman, often affectionately known by the nickname "Saartjie," was a member of South Africa's indigenous first people, the Khoisan, who were pejoratively labeled "Hottentots" by European settlers. A slave in the Western Cape capital of Cape Town, Baartman was "discovered" by British Marine Sergeant William Dunlop, who persuaded her to return with him to England, where, he assured her, they would both make their fortunes. The source of the envisioned wealth was Baartman's body -- Dunlop told her that members of European high society would pay for a chance to gawk at her unusually (by European standards) large buttocks and genitals. The 20-year-old Baartman agreed, and the duo sailed to England in 1810, where the freak show began in earnest.
Billed as the "Hottentot Venus" and paraded naked before ogling audiences in London, Baartman was advertised as a biological oddity. The spectacle of her protruding buttocks fueled racialized conceptions of black sexuality and notions of white superiority. Baartman caught the attention of Jamaican anti-slavery activist Robert Wedderburn, who pressured the British attorney general to put an end to her humiliation. The campaign resulted in a court case, which ruled that Baartman had indeed entered a legitimate contract with Dunlop and that there was therefore no issue of exploitation since she had agreed to the conditions stipulated therein.
After four years in England, Baartman was moved to Paris, where she was exhibited by a French animal trainer as part of a travelling circus. Forced to participate in a soul-destroying round of peep shows, she was also subjected to a series of intrusive and degrading examinations by eminent French scientists of the day. In 1815, abandoned by the animal trainer once the sensation of the "Hottentot Venus" had lost its titillating thrill amongst polite Parisian society, Baartman was forced into prostitution to survive. She died at 25, an alcoholic and possibly suffering from syphilis and tuberculosis. Georges Cuvier, Napoleon Bonaparte's surgeon general, made a plaster cast of Baartman's body, preserved her genitals in formaldehyde, and handed her remains over to the Musée de l'Homme (Museum of Mankind), where they were displayed until 1976, when they were removed from public view.
Zola Maseko, co-producer and director of the award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Sara Baartman, is one of the few who managed to glimpse Baartman's remains after they were shelved in museum storage. The filmmaker first heard of Baartman in a university class in England. Intrigued, he investigated her story, and even visited the Musée de l'Homme twice, asking to see her remains. Both requests were denied, but he was finally granted permission when then South African Ambassador to France Barbara Masekela wrote him a letter of support while he was researching the documentary.
"It caused quite a commotion at the Musée," he remembers. "There were a lot of black people who worked there, some for as long as seven years, and they'd never seen Sara, so they all came out to see. She was wheeled out of the back room. They only let me see her skeleton and the plaster cast, claiming that the jar containing her genitals and brain had disappeared, so I'm interested to see what exactly they'll be repatriating."
His research afforded him access to the Musée's Professor André Langanuy, who admitted that French scientists of the era had used Baartman to reinforce notions of white supremacy.
"I found the admission that their findings were both racist and wrong to be quite powerful, especially coming from a scientist who worked at the Musée," Maseko says.
Beyond the immediate implications for South Africans, Maseko believes that Baartman's repatriation might also inspire a renewed battle by former colonies worldwide for the return of their ancestors and artifacts from western museums. "I'm watching these developments with interest, because there are still other human remains, in the United States and Canada, of Native American populations annihilated by colonizers that are still sitting in those museums, as well as artifacts and relics plundered from former colonies. I wonder if this will open the floodgates for their return."
Although there seemed little hope of seeing Sara repatriated while he was working on the documentary, Maseko never doubted she would return home one day.
"Look, I knew even then that this was not the end of the story," he reflects. "Sara's spirit and her soul continued to haunt us, to follow us, inspire us she shouted for justice, and would not be ignored."
Indeed, Baartman's plight has long haunted and provided inspiration for artists in various media. And the campaign to repatriate her remains in part owes its success to a poem.
Diana Ferrus, a South African university administrator of Khoisan descent, wrote a poetic tribute to Baartman while studying in the Dutch city of Utrecht in 1998.
"I was doing a course that included a segment on sexuality in the colonies, so my mind went to Sara Baartman and how she was exploited," she explains. "But more than that, the really big thing was how acutely homesick I was. One evening I was looking at the stars and I thought to myself, 'They're so far away. But if I were home, I'd be able to touch every one of them.' My heart just went out to Sara, and I thought, 'Oh, God, she died of heartbreak, she longed for her country. What did she feel?' That's why the first line of the poem was 'I've come to take you home.'"
Ferrus's poem was later included on a website commemorating a South African poetry reading and art show in tribute to Baartman, and was stumbled on by Nicolas About, a French senator. About was so moved that he wrote to Ferrus informing her that he would take up the cause for Baartman's repatriation, and requesting permission to include a translated version of the poem in his petition to the French Senate. "They wanted to pass her off as something monstrous. But where in this affair is the true monstrosity?" he asked during the Senate hearing on the bill he sponsored to return Baartman to South Africa.
South Africa had first officially requested Baartman's return in 1994, when president Nelson Mandela brought the issue to the attention of French president Francois Mitterand when he made a state visit to South Africa. When the French failed to respond, various Khoisan groups began campaigning continuously for Baartman's return. In 2000, Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfred Nzo and Minister of Arts and Culture Ben Ngubane renewed the request from the South African government. While the Musée de l'Homme had asserted its ownership of the remains and cited the interests of "scientific research" in response to the South African demands, the passing of Senator About's bill should finally clear the way for Baartman's overdue homecoming, possibly as soon as June 2002.
For the Khoisan people, who have historically been politically marginalized in South Africa, the return of their ancestor is especially moving. The Khoisan have constantly fought for recognition as Southern Africa's "first people," and Baartman's return is an important landmark in their struggle.
"Sara became a national symbol of Khoisan people who have been humiliated and subjugated," explained Dr. Willa Boezak, a Khoisan rights activist. "A great historical wrong has been righted."
While conceding that South Africa still has a long way to go towards recognizing the Khoisan people's "first nation" status, Boezak pointed out that the South African government is the only African administration willing to negotiate with its indigenous people, and that Baartman's highly publicized return would strengthen the Khoisan's visibility.
"Sara will surely give impetus beyond belief to the Khoisan cause because of the media coverage and international interest in the story, so from that point of view, she's helping us along very nicely," he said.
To Boezak, the most intriguing aspect of Baartman's repatriation is what spurred Senator About into action: Diana Ferrus's poem. "Saartjie was stolen to Europe by unscrupulous men, and three prominent South African men [Mandela, Nzo and Ngubane] tried unsuccessfully to have her returned," he says. "It took the power of a woman, through a simple, loving poem, to move hard politicians into action. I find it so spiritual, so divine -- it's like God moving through history."
Ferrus shies away from taking any real credit for providing the impetus for Baartman's return, choosing instead to attribute it to the enduring power of non-violent protest.
"The Khoisan are a peace-loving people, who lost a lot because of their trusting and peace-loving nature," she says. "It didn't take a war to bring Saartjie back, just a simple poem. That's my testimony to the power of a peaceful solution. Wherever I read the poem, people really loved it, they felt so emotional about it, and I think that their love elevated the poem to fly to France and touch their hearts there, to bring Sara back home."
The Khoisan nation, represented by Griqua paramount chief A.A.S. le Fleur II, plan to bury Baartman's remains in the Cape Gardens, close to the Cape Town harbor where she embarked for Europe 187 years ago.
"Remember, Sara has never received a burial stuck in jars and displayed for all those years, she was never truly laid to rest," Boezak says. "We want to do that for her in the place where we know she said her final farewells to her homeland."
First published: February 14, 2002