With a solemn burial ceremony Friday, South Africa sought to restore dignity to an indigenous woman who had been displayed like a circus freak in Europe two centuries ago.
Saartjie Baartman, an indigenous Khoisan, known as Sarah, died in 1816, was treated as a circus animal by the English, Dutch and French colonialists. Her skeleton and bottled organs were stored in a museum in France until the South African government negotiated their return earlier this year.
**Baartman became a symbol of the humiliation and subjugation experienced by the indigenous Khoisan and blacks under colonialism and then apartheid.
“The story of Sarah Baartman is the story of the African people,” President Thabo Mbeki said at the funeral. “It is the story of the loss of our ancient freedom … It is the story of our reduction to the state of objects who could be owned, used and discarded by others.”
**Hundreds of people attended the funeral in the rural town of Hankey, about 470 miles east of Cape Town, where Baartman was born in 1789. The ceremony coincided with national Women’s Day.
Speakers praised the funeral for finally restoring dignity to a woman who had been horribly mistreated in both life and death.
“I hear the cry of Sarah Baartman. Her soul cries out with relief that at last the pain and humiliation are gone,” indigenous rights activist Willa Boezak said.
Before Baartman’s burial, herbs were set on fire as part of a traditional ceremony to purify her remains.
Government officials and men wearing loin cloths and carrying bows watched as her coffin, decorated by two aloe wreaths, was slowly lowered into the ground as a choir sang softly in the background.
**A member of the Griqua tribe, Baartman was sold in 1810 to a British Marine surgeon who exhibited her in London in a cage. She then was sold to an animal trainer and exhibited naked in Paris, where she was called the
After her death in 1816, a famous surgeon made a cast of her body, dissected her and conserved her brain and genitalia in bottles of formaldehyde. The painted plaster cast of Baartman’s body was displayed in Paris’ Musee de l’Homme until 1974, when it was stashed in a back room along with her remains.
Mbeki said Baartman was exploited by European scientists to prove their racist theories about white superiority.
**“Sarah Baartman was taken to Europe to tell this lie in the most dramatic way possible,” he said. However, it was not Baartman who was a barbarian, “but those who treated her with barbaric brutality.”
**Since all-race elections ended apartheid in 1994, the South African government had appealed for Baartman’s remains to be returned, a process that took years and required a change in French law.
Boezak and others said South Africa must now tackle the problems of abuse of women and children and discrimination against the Khoisan, the indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples commonly known as bushmen.
**The Khoisan had suffered severely under colonialism. The Dutch and British who settled the Cape province on Africa’s tip regarded them as savages, shooting them at will and driving them off their land. They remain one of the poorest communities in the region.
**Mbeki said the grave would become a national heritage site and a monument would be built in Cape Town, “from where Sarah Baartman began her voyage of misery and death.”
Mbeki exhorted his people to work together to build a nonracial society and a land of gender equality.
“When that is done, then it will be possible to say that Sarah Baartman has truly come home,” he said.