Accessibility links

'Sarah' Bartmann's Body Returned to South Africa - 2002-08-09

In a solemn ceremony in South Africa, a Khoisan woman named Saartje Bartmann has been buried in her homeland, nearly 200 years after she died in Europe.

Saartje Bartmann is home in South Africa. It took more than 180 years, but she has been buried in the traditional ceremony of her people, the Khoisan.

The town of Hankey lies in the center of a green valley, where it is believed Sarah Bartmann was born. Young Khoisan women danced to welcome her back to the land she left so long ago.

The Khoi and San people were the original inhabitants of southern Africa, once called Hottentots and Bushmen. One of them, Saartje Bartmann, was taken to Europe in the early 19th century and exhibited as a freak. She stood naked before crowds of gawking Europeans before finally dying, essentially as a slave, alone, impoverished.

Even death brought no relief. Scientists cut up her body, preserving her brain and genitals in glass jars. Her skeleton was placed on display in a museum in France.

After years of tense, even hostile negotiations, France returned her remains to South Africa. She was brought home earlier this year to be given a dignified burial, at last.

At the funeral ceremony, South African President Thabo Mbeki said it was not Saartje Bartmann who was the barbarian, but the people who treated her so barbarically. "We cannot undo the damage that was done to her. But at least we can summon the courage to speak the naked and the healing truth that must comfort her, wherever she may be," Mr. Mbeki said.

Mr. Mbeki said her life and death represent the plight of all Africa at the hands of European colonialists. He thanked the French government for finally returning her home. He said it had lived up to the fundamental principles of the French revolution, liberty, equality, fraternity.

Ms. Bartmann not only has a final resting place, she also has her rightful name back. Although most of the country still refers to her by the nickname Saartje, signs in the small Eastern Cape town of Hankey bid "welcome home" to Sarah Bartmann.

It is all part of an effort to restore the lost dignity of a woman who died exploited and alone.

Her return and burial have also meant a restoration of dignity for the people descended from the Khoi and San, the modern Khoisan tribes, as well as many of the mixed-race people known in South Africa as colored.

A mixed-race schoolteacher named Sarah Felix brought her two young children to Hankey to pay homage to her namesake. "It restored something within us. We usually wanted not to be part of the San or the Khoi. When we referred to our ancestors, we would always say my grandfather was an Irishman, or my grandfather was an American. We were always shy of our ancestors. But Saartje Bartmann, she gave all our dignity back, to our colored people, especially. Because we are in the middle, we are not black; we are not white. We did not want to be Khoisan, but now we are proud to be part of the Khoisan," Ms. Felix said.

Sarah Bartmann was buried on a hill overlooking town, near the banks of the Gamtoos river. Her grave is covered with stones in the Khoisan tradition and it has been declared a national heritage site.