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France to Return Baartman Remains to S. Africa - 2002-02-22


The French Parliament has voted to return to South Africa the remains of Saartjie Baartman, who became a symbol of the exploitation of African peoples. She was a member of the Khoisan indigenous people of the Eastern Cape region of South Africa who was abducted in the early 19th century and displayed as a curiosity in Europe. In life and in death she has been treated more as an object than a person for nearly 200 years.

Saartjie Baartment was referred to as the Hottentot Venus. Following her abduction from her family she was put on display in Europe as a freak because of her distinctive and non-European features. After she died in 1816, things didn't get much better. Her body ended up in a museum in Paris that for years displayed her skeleton, along with a life size wax model of her nude body and some of her organs.

In 1995, the post-apartheid government of South Africa began a campaign to have her remains returned. For South Africans, Ms. Baartman is a symbol of the inhumanity of the colonial period in Africa and of the humiliation of indigenous peoples.

The French government was sympathetic, although it did not acknowledge wrongdoing for what had happened to her. And under French law, her remains had become part of the national heritage and could not be released.

The stalemate was broken after a French legislator read a poem written by another Khoisan woman expressing her longing for Ms Baartman's return. Legislation to allow that to happen has now been unanimously passed by the both houses of the French Parliament.

Both governments have described the pending return as an important political gesture - and a symbol of a changed relationship between Europe and Africa.

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