/ 29 April 2002

Saartjie Baartman remains returned to SA

France | Monday

A GRIM chapter in scientific curiosity ends Monday when the remains of the so-called “Hottentot Venus” the preserved body of an African woman begin their journey back to a dignified resting place in South Africa.

The dissected and preserved body of Saartjie Baartman will be handed over to South Africa’s ambassador to France some 200 years after she was first exhibited in Europe as a sexual freak.

“This restitution shows France’s wish to restore Saartjie Baartman’s dignity,” said French foreign ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau last week.

Baartman was born in what is now South Africa in 1789. In 1810 she was taken to London by a British ship’s doctor who persuaded her that she could make a fortune by displaying her body to curious Europeans.

In Britain she was paraded as a savage around circus sideshows, museums, bars and universities.

There she had to show off her protruding posterior, an anatomical feature of her native Khoisan people (formerly called the Hottentots), and her outsized genitals. After moving to Paris, Baartman drifted into prostitution and died in poverty in 1816.

After her death, French scientists made a mould of her body and preserved her skeleton, genitalia and brain. These remained on display at the Museum of Mankind in Paris until 1974.

Her fame led to her becoming the source of grotesque stereotypes about race and African sexuality, many of which were perpetuated by the leading European scientific minds of the day.

The descendants of South Africa’s Khoisan people, believed to be the original inhabitants of the southern tip of Africa, made Baartman’s return a political, cultural and spiritual ambition.

Now stored at the French National Museum of Natural History, the remains are the legal property of the French state, and a special act of parliament, passed in February, was required to return them. – AFP