Reburial of Slave Remains in South Africa

There were sensitive issues regarding the reburial of slave remains in Mapungubwe, where excavators found human remains. The Limpopo site dates back 1 000 years, where a society with a highly sophisticated trade network. Limpopo trade in gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt flourished for 400 years. It is now a World Heritage Site.

Reburial of Slave Remains – Klaas and TrooiPienaar

Another case had ended a few months earlier, in April 2002. In 1909, the couple died within a month of each other on a farm near Kuruman in the Northern Cape. The South African government repatriated the remains of a Khoisan couple, Klaas and TrooiPienaar, from Austria. An anthropologist took them there 104 years ago.

Austrian anthropologist, Rudolf Poch, had them exhumed from their places of burial, placed in a barrel of salt, and taken to Europe so he could study them. It took the South African government four years of negotiation to get the remains back to the country.

Reburial of Slave Remains – Sarah Baartman

The bones of Sarah Baartman, a slave in Cape Town in the late 18th century, found a resting place finally the Eastern Cape where she was born in August 2002, 187 years after she died. In London Baartman was a “scientific curiosity”. She had unusually large buttocks and genitals, and Europeans, arrogantly obsessed at the time with their superiority, and thus with others’ inferiority – particularly black people – paid to see these “freak” exhibits.


Reburial of Slave Remains

Saartjie Baartman


Baartman’s physical appearance was not unusual for Khoisan women, although her structures were larger than normal. But they were “evidence” of this prejudice. She spent four years in London before promoters to her to Paris, where the round of degrading shows and exhibitions continued. Once the Parisians tired of the Baartman show, she turned to prostitution. She didn’t last the ravages of a foreign culture and climate or the additional abuse of her body. She died in 1815, at the age of 25.

When she died, people made a plaster cast of her body and removed the skeleton. Her brain and genitals remained on display in bottles at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris. Some 160 years later they were still on display. That stopped in 1974. In 1994, then President Nelson Mandela requested to bury her at home, at Hankey.

Reburial of Slave Remains – Excavations in Cape Town

Sometimes new developments can lead to more than just creating new places. During excavations for a new residential block in Cape Town, excavators uncovered old bones in the graves of slaves dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The present story goes back to 2003 when building began for a new luxury apartment block in Prestwich Street, Green Point. The bulldozers soon unearthed the bones and stopped excavation. Archaeologists from the University of Cape Town go involved, as prescribed by the National Heritage Resources Act.

The remains were exhumed and taken to the mortuary at the Woodstock Day Hospital. Judgements had to be made regarding what would be done with them, as human remains are always a sensitive issue. Descendants need to be consulted, and reburial is sometimes an argumentative topic.

This story ended with the opening of the Prestwich Memorial, on the corner of Buitengracht Street and Somerset Road in Green Point, in 2008. The single-storey building is finished in grey Robben Island slate. It makes a prominent statement, built next to the first Presbyterian Church in the country, completed in 1828. It was the first church to agree freed slaves through its doors after the abolishment of slavery in 1838 in South Africa.

Reburial of Slave Remains – Green Point in Cape Town

“Prestwich Place in Green Point in Cape Town has long been a subject of class and racial conflict in the Western Cape,” writes XolelwaKashe-Katiya, the deputy director of the Archival Platform, a network and advocacy research group. During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a Dutch Reformed cemetery, and some 2 000 unmarked graves suggest it was also used for the burials of slaves, sailors, poor people, and indigenous Khoi.

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All info was correct at time of publishing