University of Botswana History Department
El Negro/ El Negre of Banyoles:
"El Negro/ El Negre of Banyoles: Bushman from Bechuanaland, or Bechuana from Bushmanland?", seminar paper, University of Botswana History & Archaeology Research Seminar in Block 239/Rm 003, Thurs 30 March 2000 at 1pm
by Neil Parsons, University of Botswana History Department
[Botswana has been mandated by the Organisation of African Unity to receive and bury the body of an African man, which was displayed for the public in a small Spanish museum up to 1998. This paper outlines the controversy which the body has provoked since 1992, and investigates the origins of the man in question.]
On Monday February 7th, 2000, Miquel Molina, the Local News Editor of La Vanguardia newspaper in Barcelona, Spain, contacted the History Department at the University of Botswana, asking for our opinion on the impending 'devolution to Botswana of the body of an African warrior from the last century which was being exhibited until 1998 (it is kept in a store nowadays) in a Museum located in Banyoles (North of Spain).' Molina added:
Last week, the Banyoles City Council and the [Catalonia/Girona] Regional Government agreed to send the body back to Botswana, after a big debate about the exhibition of human bodies in museums.
The matter was passed on to me by the head of department, Prof. Gilbert Sekgoma, to reply on behalf of the department. The response to Molina acknowledged the need to re-bury a human body which we believed had been stolen, and requested more information to locate exactly where and when the body was stolen. A flurry of e-mails between Spain and Botswana, and eventually South Africa, followed. This is my report on the situation so far, as of March 2000.
In December 1991, quite some months before the 1992 summer Olympics were due to be held in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia in Spain, a certain Alphonse Arcelin, a medical doctor practising in the town of Cambrils, began to protest about the degrading exhibition of a human body in the municipal museum of Banyoles in Catalonia, 150 kilometres northwest of Barcelona. Arcelin wrote to the national daily newspaper El Pais, demanding that the exhibition be removed before it caused offence to Olympic visitors. The body was that of an African, locally know as 'El Negre" (Catalan; 'El Negro' in Spanish), and Arcelin was himself a Haitian of African ancestry. Dr. Arcelin pressed on with the issue over the next couple of months. Word was out that Arcelin was politically ambitious, and was using 'El Negro' as a focal issue to recruit followers in the growing constituency of African immigrants living in Spain. Reportedly there was a 'very considerable number of West African labourers' even in Banyoles. Arcelin fumed:
It is incredible that at the end of the 20th century, someone still dares to show a stuffed human being in a show case, as if it were an exotic animal. Spain is the only country in the world where this occurs. If the man is not moved, I'm willing to ask all black athletes not to participate in competitions in a place where such a racist statement is made even worse: it is a man stolen from his grave.
The townsfolk of Banyoles reacted in outrage at the slight to their municipality: "He is our African, and we are very fond of him." Banyoles is an otherwise unremarkable market town, close to the 'spectacular volcanic region of the Garrotxa', which boasts Spain's largest natural lake. It had therefore been chosen as the venue for the rowing and other water sports over one week of the summer Olympics. The town's museum had been started in 1916 by the generous bequest of the whole collection of one Francesc Darder i Limona, hence the 'Museo Darder' as it is popularly called. Darder was a naturalist from Barcelona grateful to the town for its hospitality while he researched in its lake, the Estany de Banyoles. The Banyoles town council's defiant response to Arcelin's agitation was its voting to keep 'El Negre' on display in his glass box as before. In the words of councillor Carles Abella, "El Negro is our property. It's our business and nobody else's. The talk of racism is absurd. Anyway, human rights only apply to living people, not dead." Abella was backed by the mayor, Juan Solana:
We have mummies and skulls and even human skins in the museum. What is the difference between those things and a stuffed African?
On a subsequent occasion Carles Abella, who turns out to be also the biologist curator of the Darder Museum (with one assistant), justified the retention of the exhibit as an integral part of the thematic 'unity' of the museum:
The black man of the [Darder] museum forms part of the city's popular culture taught in school - of course we don't consider it [racist] - this is a museum that shows different races and cultures with adequate respect. It is a racial exhibit, and racism or morbidity may be a personal attitude from visitors which the museum does not foment.
Dr. Arcelin recruited to his cause among others the Nigerian ambassador in Madrid. Ambassador Yasusu Mamman expressed his dismay that '"a stuffed human being can be exhibited in a museum at the end of the 20th century." He added:
I have already consulted with other African countries and we are making a protest at the highest levels of the Olympic Organising Committee in Barcelona and the Spanish Foreign Ministry.
By late February or the beginning of March 1992, the matter was before the International Olympics Committee, whose vice-president was from Senegal. The issue was 'raised 'by a high-ranking African committee member who claimed that the mummified man was exhibited "in such a way that it might cause offence".' An American member of the IOC, Anita de Frantz, was quoted as saying: "It is unbelievable. I can't imagine that a country hosting the Olympic Games can be so inhumane and insensitive. It's time for Spain to join the modern world." The IOC 'ordered an urgent investigation after African diplomats in Madrid threatened to boycott the [Olympic] games unless the mummy is removed.'
At some stage by the beginning of March 1992, exactly when is unclear, 'El Negre' or 'El Negro' became transmogrified into 'Il Bosquimano', the Bushman. It certainly was and still is the belief of the curator of the Darder Natural History Museum, Carles Abella, that the skull shape of 'El Negre' is that of a 'Bosquimano' rather than that of a 'Negro'. Whatever the background and reasons for this conviction, it served to pass the buck from West Africa to Southern Africa, and to Botswana in particular. A body called the Centre for Inter-African Cultural Activities, presumably in the United States, showed its support for Dr. Arcelin early in 1992 by awarding him its 'Martin Luther King Prize' - and announced that it was making 'efforts with Botswana authorities'.
European newspapers, such as the weekly published in London called The European (5 March 1992) and the Sunday Observer (8 March 1992) were given to believe that 'El Negro' was a 'Kalahari bushman'. The Observer story, under a graphic photo of the man in his glass box, was a short piece on page 2 titled 'Dead African who haunts the Barcelona Olympics'. The headline in The European, 'Mummified bushman sparks Olympics storm', appeared under the front-page title banner of the newspaper, and reported that he had become 'Banyoles' most famous celebrity':
'Keep El Negro' T-Shirts are on sale in the town and the number of visitors to the museum has increased dramatically. [Admissions hit 70,000 that year, but have since dropped to 8,000.]
The Lagos Daily Times in Nigeria carried a report on March 11th (p.7) with further information, apparently gleaned from the investigative journalism of El Pais in Spain. El Pais had not only viewed the exhibit in the museum but had also unearthed a descriptive brochure published at the time of its first exhibition in 1916. (All this seems to have gone by the board in European newspapers outside Spain, which had by now tired of the story.) Under the headline of 'Row over stuffed black man in Spanish museum' the Lagos Daily Times made no reference to 'Bushmen' but reported that 'he was chief of a Bechuana tribe in Bechuanaland, currently Botswana.' Darder was quoted as crediting 'the audacity of French explorer Edouard Verraux who stole the chief's body from the tribe after he was buried':
In one of his many trips, Verraux and his brother stole the body at midnight when the families and assistants to the ceremony had left the spot.
None of this information was available to the Botswana government, or subsequently the Botswana media, when the government was approached through its Brussels embassy in early March 1992. The Brussels embassy coordinated its response with the high commission in London, and prepared a statement for Gaborone to release during the week of Monday March 9th. The present writer was consulted through Ms Selebanyo Molefi, the commercial attache in London. My sources of information were limited to what had been carried by The European and The Observer. The former said that 'El Negro' is said to have been taken from a grave in Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and brought to Banyoles in 1916', while the latter told us that 'El Negro' has been dead for 104 years' (i.e. since 1888).
My opinion, given to the high commission on March 9th, was (i) that 'Bechuanaland' applied as much to the land north of Kimberley in 1888 - now in South Africa - as to the land north of the Molopo now in Botswana; and (ii) that 1888 indicated that the body might have been stolen by a notorious grave-robber at that time called 'Scotty Smith', who was active at that time between Kimberley and the Molopo.
Rumbles at the Olympics and the controversy in Spain continued through Easter 1992. Apart from those T-shirts and balloons, with slogans like 'Banyoles loves you El Negro. Don't go!', the good citizens of Banyoles were treated with his likeness in bite-size Easter chocolates. As for Botswana, the official and public reaction seems to have been one of perplexity. Given such doubts about the provenance of 'El Negro', as to whether he came from Botswana at all rather than from South Africa (which had not yet quite rejoined the community of nations in 1992), the expected government pronouncement was not forthcoming through March into April.
In his Midweek Sun (Gaborone) column, Sandy Grant was typically forthright about the irrelevancy of 'El Negro':
The rumpus over the long dead El Negro should not be allowed to distract us from more immediate horrors.
The 'horrors' that Grant referred to were contained in Alice Mogwe's report to the Botswana Christian Council on the human rights status of Basarwa ('Bushmen') today in Botswana. Jeff Ramsay, in his column in Mmegi/The Reporter, remonstrated with Grant that while 'the "mummified Mosarwa" had caused greater concern in Lagos and London than in Lehututu (his possible hometown), both controversies are about the same issue: the continued marginalization of this region's Khoisan-speaking communities.' Exploitation of the Basarwa was justified by the persistence of quaint anatomical stereotypes of Bushman/San, 'developed by generations of anthropologists and other assorted charlatans', and by more recent romantic social stereotypes of childlike Harmless People/Little People peacefully surviving (until rudely disturbed) as 'isolated, dancing innocents of Nature's Last/Untamed/Wild Eden'. All this, suggested Ramsay, denied them their dignity and role as autonomous individuals with their own history of interaction with neighbours.
Then there was silence for five years. The issue, however, then came before the Organisation of African Unity, and the Republic of Botswana was persuaded of its duty to receive and lay the body of 'El Negro' to rest. In the Botswana Gazette (Gaborone) of 9 July 1997, the permanent secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Ernest Mpofu, was quoted as saying:
whether we like it or not, people are saying that the remains are that of a Motswana. We have no choice.
The Botswana government, Mpofu said, was willing to accept the body from the Spanish government, and would then bury it. (Exactly how and where the body would be buried was not elaborated.) The Gazette then suggested to Mpofu that the body was only being accepted 'because of the pressure put on the government by some West African countries.' Mpofu denied such pressure but added that Africans wanted the body repatriated from Spain, and the Botswana government was doing 'what we can do as Africans.' Though his 'Department was of the view that during the 1880's there were Basarwa all over Southern Africa. 'Bechuanaland, Northern Cape, Western Transvaal and Namibia.'
The socialist mayor of Banyoles, Joan Solana, later confirmed that the OAU and Botswana had agreed to the repatriation of 'El Negro'.
The ball was now back in the Spanish court to initiate repatriation arrangements. Two and a half years later, in January 2000, the 'controversy on the possibility of repatriating the desiccated remains of the bosquimano soldier' was raised again in Banyoles. It was in the form of a challenge by the socialists now in opposition to the newly elected conservative municipal government at Banyoles.
The most prominent person to add his voice to the call for repatriation was the Bishop of Girona, Jaume Camprodon, on January 24th. His call was in the context of the new religious pluralism of his diocese, packed with new mosques and other non-Catholic places of worship. Catholics needed to reaffirm their faith and enter into dialogue with other faiths, without compromising their own. He added: "And is we are really consistent, we must also have doubts about all those foetuses and other remains still human which are kept in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris."
The cultural affairs delegate for the regional government of Catalonia/Girona, Joan Domenech, on the other hand, opposed repatriation of "the Bushman warrior" - at the beginning of February. The controversy, Domenech said. "has been blown out of all proportionsthe politicians would better concern themselves with live black people than dead." Domenach reserved particular ire for Dr. Arcelin, the originator of the controversy, as having given "the impression of a grievance about having been born black" and being "incapable of understanding that rationale behind the Darder Museum [representing] another way of thinking, pertaining to another time." As for El Negro, he would be no better off if repatriated and "will not [then] revive either."
The majority view in the Banyoles town council, however, remained in favour of repatriation. The deputy major, Jordi Omedes, insisted that "the return of the soldier to his country of origin is the most satisfactory solution", and the position on the municipal governing party on "the repatriation of the body of il bosquimano" would "not change"-whatever the opposition parties did. The point was won in town council debate on Friday or Saturday February 4th-5th, though a formal vote was postponed until later in the month.
The matter was then taken up by the Spanish national government. The minister of culture, Jordi Vilajoana, welcomed the decision of the Banyoles council after such extended debate. The minister reminded people that UNESCO had recommended that exhibits that offended people's sensibilities should be withdrawn. The responsibility for the actual repatriation would be handed over to the Spanish ministry of foreign affairs, which would now consult and make the arrangements.
It was at this point, on Monday February 7th, that the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia e-mailed the University of Botswana's History Department for our response. Our reply to Molina on February 9th began the quest for more details that was to bear extraordinary fruit, thanks to a full exchange of e-mails that continued in spate for the next three weeks. We were assisted by the services of http://babelfish.altavista.com which gives instant, if crude, translations between Spanish and English, etc. (La Vanguardia also separately contacted Ernest Mpofu, permanent secretary for external affairs in Gaborone, who responded enthusiastically that 'it is going to be a great day for Africa the day the body will be returned' to Botswana.)
Our first surprise was on February 14th, when we learnt that the Verraux brothers had stolen the body in about 1830, not 1888. The latter date was when Darder had purchased the body from the heirs of the Verraux brothers, during the 1888 Universal Exhibition in Barcelona when, presumably, the body was on display.
We responded that by about 1830 one may guesstimate that 'scarcely twenty Europeans had set foot' in Botswana, and a 'Bushman' body was much more likely to have come from the lands between the Sneeuwberg escarpment and the Orange river in South Africa. 'Exactly what evidence is there', we asked,' that the man was even "Bushman" for a start. let alone from the Kalahari?'
By this time our contacts had spread to two journalists in Botswana, and to an academic in Texas, who was to be followed by more academics and museologists in South Africa. Molina began to feed is with details drawn about the Verraux brothers and Francesc Darder from the articles on 'El Negro' published in El Pais in 1992. There were two absolutely vital new details contained in his e-mail (copied to us) to Leshwiti Tutwane of Mmegi/The Reporter on February 15th.
The first new detail was a bombshell:
the catalogue of the first exhibition of the body (in Paris, 1831), defined "El Negro" as a member of the Betjouana (sic) nation. The same definition appeared [for] its exhibition in Barcelona in 1888. (Is it right that the bushmen are one of the Betjouana ethnic groups?)
The second new detail was an absolutely necessary piece of geographical context:
According to the same source, the Verraux brothers (two famous French taxidermists) stole the body somewhere where the Betjouanas lived (in the articles of that time, it is placed near the Orange and Vaal rivers, on the border of the Kalahari desert) the night after the burial. It was supposed to [have been] stuffed in the British Cape Colony, from where the two brothers sent the body to Paris.
Unfortunately for the politicians and bureaucrats, the intervention of newspapers in Barcelona and Gaborone, using their contacts with us, muddied the previously clear waters of repatriation. The ministries of foreign and external affairs in Madrid and Gaborone were not pleased. The Spanish secretary for foreign affairs, Julio Nunez, sounded somewhat testy when confronted by La Vanguardia:
The government's hope is that the bushman's body may go to Botswana. If they don't want it back there - something which is difficult to [arrange] - we will look for another place where they have ethnic groups similar to the body which was exhibited in Banyoles. Besides I talked last week with the Botswanan secretary of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ernest Mpofu, who said that his government will prepare for El Negro the ceremony that it deserves when there is an agreement with the Spanish government for its return. He seemed willing to accept the return on the body. More than this, he said it will be something symbolic for the whole [of] Africa.
We learned more about the brothers Verraux brothers, Edouard and Jules, who had made many visits to the Orange-Vaal area in search of lions, snakes and crocodiles around 1830. They exhibited them, together with 'El Negro', in their taxidermist shop in the Rue de Saint-Fiacre, Paris, until the business was sold after their death-and the specimens were bought up by Darder. He exhibited them in Barcelona until his death in 1916, when they were willed to his favourite vacation spot, Banyoles. We also learned that the body of 'El Negro' was medically examined in 1993. He was found to have died of a lung disease at age of about 27. (This examination appears to have been done by a British professor interested in taxidermia applied to human bodies - the only scientist who has been interested in the body in the whole eight years since the 'El Negro' controversy blew up.)
There was also the intriguing suggestion in Molina's reading of Darder that 'the Verraux brothers stole the corpse the very night after it had been buried in the Cape Colony' - implying that the body had been buried on the south bank of the Orange, inside the then northern frontier of Cape Colony.
The problem now seemed basically solved for us academics. We contacted colleagues at the MgGregor Memorial Museum in Kimberley, within whose remit the Orange-Vaal area falls. And we did some reading of our own of published sources on early 19th century Tswana people in that area. (See the next section of this paper.)
Meanwhile in Spain, the now curator of the Darder Museum has re-stated her conviction that 'El Negro' was a 'Bushman' after all, because of the shape of his cranium. With the Spanish general election coming up - it has now passed - the authorities of Banyoles and Girona have put off their final decision on 'El Negro' until April 2000, and have commissioned some kind of committee of enquiry. The rearguard defence against repatriation has now resorted to another ploy to keep the body in Banyoles - that since 'El Negro' is still really a 'Bushman' from the Kalahari, Botswana should be punished for its maltreatment of 'Bushmen' today by Banyoles withholding the body from repatriation.
It has also been reported that the Spanish government intends to repatriate 'El Negro' as a museum object, in a box, rather than as a human being, in a coffin.
Ernest Mpofu in Gaborone reiterated in Mmegi of March 3rd that as far as the Botswana government is concerned, 'El Negro' is, as mandated by a resolution of the Organisation of African Unity, 'a bushman from Botswana'. When told of the other developments in Spain, trying to stop the repatriation because of alleged maltreatment of 'Bushmen' in Botswana, he despaired:
You don't know how many times I've been to Geneva to answer for the government. Even when I was [ambassador] in Brussels (Belgium) I used to do that.
We also sent La Vanguardia a long explanation of the situation of ethnic minorities in Botswana, which, as is well known, is also an extremely sensitive issue in Spain. (We could but did not point out that Botswana has a longer continuous contemporary record of practising democracy and respecting human rights than Spain.) We don't know if the newspaper in Barcelona used any of our explanation.
Look at the pictures of 'El Negro' (to be shown at the seminar). He could be 'Bushman'/ San/ Sarwa. But he could perfectly equally well be Tswana/Motswana/'Bechuana'. (We refer to stature and skull, not to the obvious blacking of the skin.) Biology is never enough for ethnic classification; most of us do not conform to any single 'type'. All other sources now point to 'El Negro' being not a 'Bushman' from Bechuanaland, but a 'Bechuana' from Bushmanland.
We are now in possession of further information relayed by Miquel Molina in Barcelona, by Andrew Bank (University of the Western Cape) in Cape Town and by David Morris (McGregor Memorial Museum) in Kimberley.
Jules Verraux was a French resident of the Cape of Good Hope in the 1820s. He accompanied, and presumably arrived with, the naturalist Pierre Antoine Delalande who made three excursions in search of flora (uprooted) and fauna (shot) from Cape Town as far as the Keiskamma river on the eastern frontier in 1820. (Delalande wrote a 50 page report, 'Precis d'un voyage au Cap du Bonne-Esperance' for the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, in 1821, a copy of which is in the Mendelssohn collection of the South African Public Library in Cape Town.). Jules Verraux then worked as a taxidermist for the naturalist Dr. Andrew Smith in Cape Town, at the South African Museum founded in 1825. In 1829 he was joined by his brother Edouard, with whom he made collecting trips to the northern Cape frontier. (He also befriended a British official called Franklin.)
The Paris newspaper Le Constitutionel in 1831 tells us of an exhibition of taxidermia by the Verraux brothers from Austral Africa at the stores (shops?) of 'le baron Benjamin Delessert' (# 3 Rue de Saint-Fiacre), including the body of a 'Betjouana' with a spear and antelope fur dress.
In Paris, Jules Verraux was connected with the famous French anatomists (Baron) Georges Cuvier - the dissector of Sara Baartman the "Hottentot Venus' - who had verified the collection of Delalande in 1821 in their capacity as 'Professeurs Administrateurs du Jardin du Roi, et de l'Academie Royale des Sciences'. They were also 'seminal figures in the development of 19th century 'scientific racism'.
Jules Verraux wrote a report titled 'Ethnographie du Cape: Recuil des dessins maniscrits rehausss d'aquarelles', which was on the card index of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris but has since been marked 'introuvable' (unfindable). Apparently it is narrated some of his travels and listed his specimens of natural history with their prices. He and his brother Edouard also published articles in the Revue Zoologique as well as 'a huge book' on their travels to 'Cochinchine et Notasie'. (It may be recalled that the first substantial published account of the Tswana was an appendix to a book titled A Voyage to Cochinchina, i.e. to the South-East Asian peninsular.) There are no works by Verraux, however, in the on-line catalogues of either the South African Public Library or the Library of Congress. (The Bibliotheque Nationale on-line catalogue in Paris won't log-in without a password.)
It now appears that the Catalan naturalist Francesc Darder bought the body of the 'Betjouana', as well as other specimens no doubt, in 1880, presumably in Paris, after the deaths of the Verraux brothers. So it was Darder who exhibited them at the Barcelona universal exposition in 1888.
So 'El Betchuanas', as he was now rendered, was exhibited temporarily in 1888 and then permanently in public at the Darder Museum in Banyoles after 1916. The antelope fur, in which he was presumably buried, was gone. But he held a hour-glass shaped shield and a very long spear, barbed like a harpoon. Bird feathers adorned his head. All of these, as illustrated in the 1916 catalogue of the new Darder Museum, would have been characteristic of a 'Betchuanas' warrior circa 1830. Though the barbs on the spear, making it a kind of harpoon, are unusual; it could have been a harpoon for use in the extremely dangerous hunting of hippo (kubu; 'sea-cow') along the Orange and Vaal rivers.
On the African front, while we cannot name any individual or place with precision, we now have a pretty good idea of what sort of person 'El Betchuanas' might have been.
There were small groups of BaTlhaping (the mostly southerly Tswana or 'Bechuana') living on the lower Vaal near its junction with the Orange around 1830. This was the area where the BaTlhaping had got their name as fish-eaters in the previous century, but it was now under the general sovereignty of the Griqua republic which lay to the north of the Cape Colony frontier along the Orange river. Independent BaTlhaping and BaRolong kingdoms lay to the north of the Griqua republic.
The main roads for ox-wagon traffic from the Cape Colony to the Griqua settlements of Campbell and Griquatown ran through the area of the Orange-Vaal junction. Local people such as made a living servicing and assisting ox-wagons crossing the rivers. A famous sketch by Thomas Baines portrays the young chief of such 'Bechuana' as were living on the Vaal around the 1850s, surrounded by his mates and elders, all frantically sewing karosses (animal skins) while they conversed in the kgotla courtyard.
William Burchell, who came through the area in 1812, identified a young MoTlhaping called Adam who had been previously captured and enslaved by Dutch Boer farmers in the Bokkeveld and Roggeveld of the Western Cape. Adam was now free but decided to settle on the Orange river, because he had forgotten his SeTswana and people (Griqua, Kora, San, BaTlhaping) on the Orange spoke Dutch. But Adam could not have been 'El Betchuanas' if the latter was only 27 in 1830.
The Kimberley Museum has identified the remains of an old Tswana town called Kgatlane on the Vaal near the Orange confluence. The people of Kgatlane can still be identified today, having been the victims of removal to the Schimidtsdrift reserve further north on the Vaal in the later 19th century, and then again the victims of apartheid removal to faraway 'Bophuthatswana' little more than twenty years ago, in 1978. Subject to correction, the people of Kgatlane appear to have been of the Sehunelo lineage of BaTlhaping. Their chief around 1830 would appear to have been Makane or his son Samuel Makane (born c.1800), but Samuel appears to have lived on into the century and could not be 'El Betchuanas' of Banyoles.
There is of course no reason to take the Verraux' assertion that 'El Betchuanas' was a chief as a given. He was, after all, rather young if he was only 27. Of 'warrior' age certainly. As for dying of lung disease, that was probably not (yet) consumption or TB (if it was, it implies he had been working for Boer farmers in crowded living conditions). Pneumonia was, after all, together with gastric complications, the most common cause of death among the BaTswana until recently. (Winter nights can be extremely frosty, and a chill is easily caught if clothes are wet after exertion during the hot day.) The fur kaross with which 'El Betchuanas' was buried would have been absolutely necessary winter wear. As the best furs and pelts were hunted in winter, it is also likely that the Verraux brothers came to the Orange-Vaal area in winter.
How then did 'El Betchuanas' become 'El Negre'? The former was the name given in the 1916 catalogue. The latter was his popular name. The simple answer is of course that 'Betchuanas' meant nothing to people in Spain. 'Negre' on the hand was one the three major racial classifications (Negro, Caucasian, Mongoloid) into which the human race was divided scientifically until circa 1950, since when the science of genetics and DNA has knocked biological racism out of the window. The Darder Museum was, and is still, dedicated to teaching the old orthodoxy.
There may also be another, cruder reason why the 'desiccated and stuffed' mummy became 'El Negre', the black person. It can be seen by looking at his photograph. He is extremely, unnaturally black. (Corpses lose colour rather than gain it!) The body was surely painted with boot-blacking at some time, possibly a number of times, after 1916 - just as blackface minstrels were blacked up with burnt cork, even if like Sammy Davis Junior's father and recent minstrels in Ghana, they were themselves 'natural' Negroes.
Let us give the penultimate word to the observations of a visiting anthropologist at Banyoles in 1991-92:
Now housed in what was once the Municipal School building, the collection is a classic example of the nineteenth century craze for natural history - catch it, stuff it, classify it. The five rooms are clean, nicely arranged and lit, but the exhibition is truly a period piece, a curious mixture of schoolroom and carnival. Shells, birds and insects are pedantically arranged in glass cases, but much of the space is take up by ferocious lions, apes and crocodiles. After a century of wear and tear, some of the taxidermy looks distressingly like road-kill. Local children, clutching their drawing pads, cluster round various freaks among the exhibits - a five-legged calf, a malformed human embryo crouching in its jar. Man - the apogee of this natural historical circus - is well represented in gangling skeletons, rows of skulls from all quarters of the globe and, of course, the African.
He stands about 130 cm. High, wears a flat leather apron and carries a small [sic] spear. Some parts of him appear to be naturally desiccated, others seem to have been filled or reconstituted with wire and plaster. His large glass eyes concentrate firmly on some invisible prey. There is no explanatory legend
One thing continues to puzzle me. On a wall high above the cases in the room where the African is displayed, there are two complete human pelts, stretched outa circular hole where the genitals have been removed. Crinkly black hair on the flattened scalps indicates that these two specimens are also African. Why, I wonder, have they passed without comment?
There can be no last word in a saga that has not yet ended. If procedures continue smoothly in Spain, the body of the African will repatriated sometime this year. Botswana has accepted the mandate given by the Organisation of African Unity of accepting his body and arranging his burial. But his burial must surely be amongst his people, from whom his body was stolen 170 years ago.
By good fortune the people we believe to be the people of 'El Negro', the Kgatlane group of BaTlhaping, are themselves currently being allowed to reclaim and return to their ancestral land at Schmidtsdrift on the Vaal (if not Kgatlane itself). The repatriation and reburial among them of their putative ancestor would be a fitting gesture of reconciliation - not only between black and white after the demise of apartheid in South Africa, but between the people of Africa and the people of Europe after the demise of scientific (now pseudo-scientific) racism which justified the deaths of millions over the last two centuries.
Back to top
by Neil Parsons, University of Botswana History Department
Copyright © 2000 Neil Parsons
Last updated 13 November 2000 (format edited 25 May 2011)