In Media



Saartjie's return restores our common dignity

A student essay that appears on the Internet says: "Her story was forgotten for centuries, buried under mounds of dusty racist documents by the Afrikaner government of South Africa, sloshing in a jar of formaldehyde in a museum in Paris. But slowly she has been rediscovered, by women in South Africa, in England, in the United States.

"They have written plays and poems, made films and speeches telling her story in the hopes of reclaiming her torturous past. Her name was Saartje Bartmaan, or at least that's what her captors called her. She had swelling buttocks and a vagina whose inner lips extended maybe three, maybe four inches.

"In the early nineteenth century, when the study of Khoi women became fashionable in European society, she was convinced to leave her home to become a dancer, with a contract that she may or may not have seen. A man from England promised her that she could make money to bring home to her tribe. What followed was five years of exhibition in museums and at fashionable parties, her spectacular buttocks and breasts bare, French and British men and women clustering around her, mocking her at the same time that her body made them uncomfortable with their own desire. Her days were punctuated by rape and scientific examinations.

"She died, probably of syphilis, and her body was given to Georges Cuvier, a French scientist who made a plaster model of her brain and preserved her buttocks and vagina to be displayed at the Musee de l'Homme. They remained on display until ten years ago."

Another article says: "The effects of climate on the physiology of black women were used to support theories about the sexual promiscuity and fertility of black races, exemplified in the description by J. J Virey, of the 'degree of lascivity unknown in our climate' among black women 'for their sexual organs are much more developed than those of whites.'

"Similarly, David Spurr quotes Richard Burton who 'merely affirms the conventional wisdom of his age in claiming that in damp-hot climates ...the sexual requirements of the passive (female) exceed those of the active (male) sex; and the result is a dissolute social state, contrasting with mountain countries, dry-cold and damp-cold, where the conditions are equally balanced or reversed'."

Nancy Stepan explains the Victorian mindset that created the gory exhibits in this Paris museum, which included the remains of Saartjie Baartman: "Of all the boundaries between peoples, the sexual one was the most problematic to the Victorian mind. In the area of racial thought, there had been since the earliest of times a prurient interest in the strange sexual customs of alien peoples, especially the African. Did African women, for instance, mate with the great apes who came out of Africa? Were the sexual organs of Africans larger than those of whites? Did a tropical climate encourage an unbridled sexuality that resulted in promiscuity? It was not surprising that anthropological accounts of strange peoples provided a surrogate pornography for Europeans."

This Letter and the preceding quotations are occasioned by the return of Saartjie Baartman from France to her homeland, South Africa.

The scientist who dismembered Saartjie's body when she died, Georges Cuvier, the founder of comparative anatomy, said when commenting on Africans: "These races with depressed and compressed skulls are condemned to a never-ending inferiority.(Saartjie's) moves had something reminding (one) of the monkey and her external genitalia reminded (one of) those of the orang-outang."

Saartjie Baartman, a daughter of the Khoi people, was born in the Eastern Cape in 1789. Later she served as a slave or servant in the employ of a white colonist. It was while she was thus employed, that a British Naval Surgeon, William Dunlop, had her transported by ship to London in 1810.

Dunlop, intent to use her to make money for himself, told her she could make a fortune by displaying her naked body to curious Europeans. She was paraded at circuses, museums, bars and universities. At times, she was displayed in a cage and forced to behave like "a wild beast". Especially on display were her prominent posterior and her genitals.

In 1814 and 1815, she was exhibited in Paris by one Henry Taylor and then by someone called Reaux. By the time she died on January 1, 1816, she was owned by an animal trainer. During this period, she was also forced into prostitution and, in despair, resorted to heavy consumption of alcohol.

After her death, her body was handed to the scientist, Georges Cuvier. He cast her in plaster and then dissected her body, removing the brain, the vulva and the anus, which were placed in glass jars in a preserving fluid. He then removed all flesh from the skeleton. These remains were kept in the exhibition rooms of the French Museums, open for public viewing, until 1974 and 1976.

When we gained our freedom in 1994, we requested the French government to assist in returning the remains of Saartjie Baartman to the land of her birth. Ultimately, this required that the French Parliament should pass special legislation authorising the release of these remains to our country.

The debate of this law in the French National Assembly took place under the theme "Repatriation of the Hottentot Venus". This is the circus name that Saartjie Baartman had been given by her European owners.

On the day the necessary legislation was adopted, on 21 February 2002, Research Minister Roger-Gerard Schwatzenberg, said: "Saartjie Baartman was firstly a victim of the exploitation suffered by South African ethnic groups during colonisation. Secondly, Saartjie Baartman was the victim of colonialism and sexism because her dignity as a woman and her rights were denied. Thirdly, she was also the victim of racism which was the characteristic of anthropology at the time, the latter being very much turned to ethnocentrism.

"I see in this bill a double symbol. Firstly, it gives us the opportunity to turn the page of decades marked by colonialism, racism and sexism. It will mark the end of a painful period, when non European populations were not viewed as equal to the European ones. Secondly, it marks our will to acknowledge equality among people. This is an important moment of unity around an essential principle - the dignity of any human being, whatever his/her religion, origins and condition."

Saartjie Baartman was called Saartjie Baartman by those who colonised her, her people and her country. By depriving her of her Khoi name, they took away her identity. By turning her into a non-person, they defined her as sub-human. As such a subhuman, she became an object intended to be fully owned, used at will and freely disposed of by those who had robbed her of her identity. Her few years in Europe gave the fullest expression to this reality that she was nothing more than an object to satisfy the needs of those who were her owners.

The inhumane and barbaric fate she met exemplified the destiny of the colonised and oppressed in our country, including the Khoi and the San. Denied their identity, defined as subhuman, dispossessed of their land, their country and their freedom, millions became chattels in the ownership of others who convinced themselves that they were true masters of all they surveyed.

Even scientific inquiry was perverted to serve the cause of racism and the domination of human beings by other human beings. Thus did Saartjie Baartman become a mere biological specimen to be dissected and dismembered to arrive at predetermined conclusions that justified her categorisation as a mere biological specimen.

And thus did entire peoples fall victim to racist beliefs, underpinned by false intellectual propositions and a corrupted theology, which justified the perpetration of crimes against humanity on the basis that these peoples, including our own, were proper objects of a civilising mission.

The struggle for the return of the remains of Saartjie Baartman to her motherland was a struggle to uproot the legacy of many centuries of unbridled humiliation. It was a struggle to restore to our people and the peoples of Africa their right to be human and to be treated by all as human beings. Her return stands out as a defining moment in the continuing process of our emancipation.

The Khoi people of our country and the descendants of the Khoi have every right solemnly to celebrate the return of one who was their daughter. They have every right to demand that this historic act of redress should be given its true meaning by the restoration to the Khoi and the San their place of pride as Africans equal to all other Africans.

Those who sought to dehumanise Saartjie Baartman also have the responsibility to join hands with the millions whose fate she exemplified, to help rebuild South Africa and Africa, in a common effort to give meaning to the vision that all of us, regardless of race or colour, were created in the image of God.

As our ambassador to France, Thuthukile Skweyiya, together with Deputy Minister Bridgitte Mabandla and her delegation from South Africa, received the remains of Saartjie Baartman at our Embassy in Paris, she said: "Saartjie Baartman is beginning her final journey home, to a free, democratic, non-sexist and non-racist South Africa. She is a symbol of our national need to confront our past and restore dignity to all our people."

Speaking on behalf of the government and people of France, Minister Schwatzenberg said: "After suffering so much offence and humiliation, Saartjie Baartman will have her dignity restored. She will find justice and peace."

The remains of Saartjie Baartman returned home a few days after our Freedom Day, 192 years after she left her motherland. Welcome home, our Saartjie!

Thabo Mbeki


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