In the early 19th Century, it was fashionable for Europeans to collect wild animals from around the globe, bring them home and put them on display. One French dealer went further, bringing back the body of an African warrior. Dutch writer Frank Westerman came across the exhibit in a Spanish museum 30 years ago, and was determined to trace the man’s history.
WARNING: This story contains an image some readers may find disturbing
A decorative chain-link fence in the national colours – blue, white and black – marks the grave of one of the most famous, but least enviable sons of Botswana: “El Negro”. His resting place in a public park in the city of Gaborone, under a tree trunk and some rocks, is reminiscent of the tomb of an unknown soldier.
A metal plaque reads:
Died c. 1830
Son of Africa
Carried to Europe in Death
Returned Home to African Soil
His fame comes from his posthumous travels – lasting 170 years – as a museum exhibit in France and Spain. Generations of Europeans gaped at his half-naked body, which had been stuffed and mounted by a taxidermist. There he stood, nameless, exhibited like a trophy.
Back in 1983, as a university student from The Netherlands, I accidentally came across him on a hitchhiking trip to Spain. I had spent a night in the town of Banyoles, an hour north of Barcelona. The entrance of the Darder Museum of Natural History, behind a trio of leafless plane trees, happened to be next door.
“He’s real, you know,” a schoolgirl shouted at me.
“El Negro!” Her voice blared out over the square – accompanied by the snorts and laughter of her friends.
The next instant an elderly woman stepped out of the hairdressing salon with a cardigan draped over her shoulders. A fragile lady with a pointy chin graced by a few single hairs, she turned a key ring around in her fingers like a rosary. Senora Lola opened up the museum, sold me a ticket and pointed in the direction of the reptile room.
“That way,” she ordered. “Then go through the rooms clockwise.”
As I was on my way to the Human Room, an annex of the Mammal Room, past a climbing wall with apes and the skeleton of a gorilla, my merriment gave way to a shudder. There he was, the stuffed Negro of Banyoles. A spear in his right hand, a shield in his left. Bending slightly, shoulders raised. Half-naked, with just a raffia decoration and a coarse orange loincloth.
El Negro turned out to be an adult male, skin and bones, who hardly came up to one’s elbow. He was standing in a glass case in the middle of the carpet.
This was not Madame Tussaud’s. I was not staring at an illusion of authenticity – this black man was neither a cast nor some kind of mummy. He was a human being, displayed like yet another wildlife specimen. History dictated that the taxidermist was a white European and his object a black African. The reverse was unimaginable. I flushed and felt the roots of my hair prickling – simply from a diffuse sense of shame.
Senora Lola didn’t have an explanation. She didn’t even have a catalogue or a brochure. She tapped a carousel postcard stand and stared at me through her glasses. I took a card of El Negro and read on the back: Museo Darder – Banyoles. Bechuana.
Senora Lola kept staring at me. Head back, chin jutting forward. “The cards are 40 pesetas each,” she said.
I bought two.
Twenty years later I decided to write a book about El Negro’s extraordinary journey from Botswana (Bechuana) to Banyoles and back again.
The story begins with Jules Verreaux, a French dealer in “naturalia”, who in 1831 witnessed the burial of a Tswana warrior in the African interior, a few days’ travel north of Capetown, and then returned at night – “not without danger to my own life” – to dig up the body and steal the skin, the skull and a few bones.
With the help of metal wire acting as a spine, wooden boards as shoulder blades, and stuffed with newspapers, Verreaux prepared and preserved the stolen body parts. Then he shipped him to Paris, along with a batch of stuffed animals in crates. In 1831 the African’s body appeared in a showroom at No 3, Rue Saint Fiacre.
In a review, the newspaper Le Constitutionnel praised the fearlessness of Jules Verreaux, who must have faced dangers “amid natives who are as wild as they are black”. This article set the tone, and the “individual of the Bechuana people” attracted more attention than the giraffes, hyenas or ostriches. “He is small in posture, black-skinned, and his head is covered in woolly frizzy hair,” the newspaper said.
More than half a century later, the “Bechuana” popped up in Spain. On the fringes of the world exhibition in Barcelona in 1888, the Spanish vet Francisco Darder presented him in a catalogue as “El Betchuanas”, complete with a drawing in which he is seen wearing raffia finery and holding a spear and a shield.
By the 20th Century, having been brought over to Banyoles, a small city at the foot of the Pyrenees, his origins had been largely forgotten – on his pedestal was mistakenly written “Bushman of the Kalahari”. In the decades that followed, the link to his Tswana origins faded even further and he became known simply as “El Negro”.
At some point, the revealing loincloth that Jules Verreaux had decked him out in was replaced by the Roman-Catholic curators of the Banyoles museum with a more demure orange skirt. His skin was given a layer of shoe polish to make him seem blacker than he was.
Standing in his display case, slightly bowed and with a piercing gaze, El Negro embodied in a poignant and harrowing way, the darkest aspects of Europe’s colonial past. He confronted visitors head-on with theories of “scientific racism” – the classification of people according to their supposed inferiority or superiority on the basis of skull measurements and other false assumptions.
As the 20th Century progressed, El Negro became more and more of an anachronism. Not only was there increasing guilt and awareness of the fact that his body and grave had been violated, but as a European artefact from the 19th Century he reflected ideas that had become universally untenable.
Everything began to shift in 1992 when a Spanish doctor of Haitian origin suggested, in a letter to El Pais, that El Negro should be removed from the museum. The Olympic Games were coming to Barcelona that year and the lake of Banyoles was the venue for the rowing competitions. Surely, wrote Dr Alphonse Arcelin, any athletes and spectators who visited the local museum would take offence at the sight of a stuffed black man.
Arcelin’s call was supported by prominent names such as the US pastor Jesse Jackson and basketball player “Magic” Johnson. The Ghanaian Kofi Annan, then still Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, condemned the exhibit as “repulsive” and “barbarically insensitive”.
But due to heavy resistance among the Catalan people, who embraced El Negro as a “national” treasure, it was not until March 1997 that El Negro disappeared from public view and “Object 1004” was put into storage. Three years later, in the autumn of 2000, he began his final journey home.
Following long consultations with the Organisation for African Unity, Spain had agreed to repatriate the human remains to Botswana for a ceremonial reburial in African soil. The first stage of his repatriation was a night ride in a truck to Madrid.
Once in the capital, his stuffed body was divested of its non-human additions, such as his glass eyes. El Negro was dismantled – as if the film of the preparations that Jules Verreaux carried out 170 years earlier was simply rewound.
His skin, however, turned out to be hard and crusty – it crumbled. Because of this, and because of the treatment with shoe polish, it was decided to keep it in Spain. According to one newspaper report it was left behind at the Museum of Anthropology in Madrid.
So the coffin, destined for Botswana, contained only the skull and certain arm and leg bones.
The remains of the Tswana warrior lay in state for a day in the capital Gaborone, where an estimated 10,000 people walked past to pay their last respects. The following day, 5 October 2000, he was committed to earth in a fenced-off area in the Tsholofelo park.
It was a Christian burial. “In the spirit of Jesus Christ,” the priest said with his hand on the Bible, “who also suffered.” An awning, supported by two rows of tent poles, protected the guests of honour from the sun.
“We are prepared to forgive,” said the then-Foreign Minister Mompati Merafhe to the assembled mourners. “But we must not forget the crimes of the past, so that we don’t repeat them.”
Blessings were pronounced, there was singing and dancing. Buglers wearing white gloves sounded a last salute.
Subsequently, the grave was neglected for many years, the field around it being used as a football pitch. Lately however, the Botswanan government has restored and enhanced the site with a visitor’s centre and explanatory signs.
But in 2016 it is still not known who this “son of Africa” was, what his name was, or exactly where he came from.
An autopsy, carried out in a Catalan hospital in 1995, nevertheless brought some things to light. The man who became world-renowned as El Negro lived to be about 27 years old. When alive, he stood between 1.35m and 1.4m tall (between 4ft 5in and 4ft 7in). He probably died of pneumonia.