RaceSci
In Media
RaceSci

 

Monday, 29 April, 2002, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
'Hottentot Venus' goes home

The remains of an African woman who was paraded around Europe as a freak and scientific curiosity have been handed back to the South African Government in a symbolic gesture of reconciliation by France.
The skeleton and bottled organs of Saarti Baartman - who was known as the "Hottentot Venus" for her pronounced buttocks and genitals - were handed over to the South African ambassador in a ceremony in Paris on Friday, ending a long battle for her return.

"After suffering so much offence and humiliation, Saarti Baartman will have her dignity restored - she will find justice and peace," said French Research Minister Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg.

Her treatment has become a symbol of European colonial attitudes towards Africa and her return has been an important issue in post-apartheid South Africa.

Freak show

Six women sang a hymn as two crates containing a plaster cast of Baartman's body and her remains were opened, and then covered with a flag and a leopard skin cloth.

They will be transported to South Africa later this week.

Baartman was born in 1789 into the Khoisan tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in the southernmost tip of Africa and were also known as Hottentots, which is now considered a derogatory and offensive term.

In 1810 a British ship's doctor, William Dunlop, noticed what seemed to him, her unusual shape.

He took her to London, hoping there was money to be made by exhibiting her and showed her off to a paying audience as a freak of nature.

She was then sold to a French entrepreneur who took her to Paris where she seems to have fallen into alcoholism and prostitution and was dead by 1816.

Baartman was then dissected as a scientific specimen.

Parts of her were preserved and put on display along with her skeleton and could be seen in a Paris museum, right up until the mid 1970s.

Righting a wrong

After the ending of apartheid, South Africa began to campaign for the return of her remains.

In 1994 former French President Francois Mitterrand made a personal promise on the matter to Nelson Mandela, but it has taken several years for the necessary legislation to be passed.

A special act of parliament, passed in February, opened the way for the handover to South Africa.

The French were concerned that to return Baartman's remains might lead to claims from other countries for return of artefacts held in French museums.

For South Africa, the case illustrates the racist scientific thinking common in 19th Century Europe and there are plans to give Baartman a national funeral and partially put right a historical wrong.

 

Home page