186 years later, a proper burial

Published Aug. 10, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

The late winter sun bore down on this mountainous hamlet, but Phumla Nyanda couldn't shake the chill in her bones, shivering as she watched Sarah Baartman's pine coffin lowered into a grave, 186 years after her death.

Nyanda pulled her sweater close to her body, crossed her arms and wept.

"I always think of her being so cold when she died, so far from home, so alone, in this cold, strange place," Nyanda said. "I always wonder what humiliation she must have been feeling when the Europeans would file by her in her cage and stare at her nakedness. Couldn't they see she was a woman and not some animal, not some rabid beast? She must have been so cold when she died."

They buried Saartjie Baartman, known as Sarah, Friday in a solemn ceremony on a small hill overlooking this town on the Gamtoos River where she was born 213 years ago. She died in 1816, a pauper and a prostitute, a circus sideshow. She had been sold to a British Marine surgeon who saw in her protruding derriere that was characteristic of her Khoisan tribe some proof of whites' racial superiority. He took her to London and put her on display in a cage.

Things only got worse. The surgeon sold her to an animal trainer, who took her to France. She was put on display in Paris, where gawkers sized up her nude form and named her the "Hottentot Venus."

Even in death, her humiliation did not end; a surgeon made a cast of her body, dissected her and stored her brain and genitals in bottles of formaldehyde. The painted plaster cast of Baartman's body was displayed in a Paris museum until 1974.

The French government returned her remains in May, and hundreds of South Africans attended Friday's ceremony in Hankey, about 470 miles east of Cape Town in South Africa's Eastern Cape region. The funeral coincided with Women's Day, a public holiday, and with its tribal rituals and elegies, the interment was intended to redeem a daughter lost to a continent that grieves both for her and itself.

"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."

The funeral paid tribute not only to Baartman but to the tribe to which she belonged, the Khoisan, indigenous hunters commonly known as bushmen. The Dutch and British settlers who arrived in Africa more than 400 years ago drove them from their land and slaughtered them en masse.

Baartman's remains were clothed in traditional garb and purified with herbs that were set alight in keeping with Khoisan custom. Two aloe wreaths adorned her coffin, and Mbeki announced that her gravesite would become a national landmark.