University of Botswana History Department
"El Negro of Banyoles"
El Negro: reports of arrival & burial
Bruce Bennett writes:
The body of "El Negro of Banyoles" arrived in Botswana yesterday (4 October 2000) and was buried this morning.
The body arrived at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport. (Prof. Neil Parsons, who has played a key role in identifying the actual origins of El Negro, and Dr Alinah Segobye, an archaeologist currently Acting Head of the History Department, were interviewed by the media at the airport.) Following arrival, the body was taken to the Civic Centre in the centre of Gaborone, where it lay in state surrounded by a guard of honour from the Botswana Defence Force. Great numbers of people came to pay their respects. Having heard that the crowds were large, I waited until after 10 p.m., but when I arrived there were still queues an hour long, stretching across the road. The event was orderly and dignified, with only a few police officers needed to usher the long lines into the hall.
We filed past a wooden casket in which was set a small glass window, through which a skull was visible. I was slightly surprised by this, as the body, when displayed in Spain, had been preserved like a stuffed animal (see index page, and comments below).
What impressed me most, however, were the numbers. It seemed that most of Gaborone had come out to mark this strange event; a second funeral, the return of an African stolen from his rest 170 years ago. It is hard to classify this event or to state exactly what it signifies, but the people of Gaborone were in doubt that it was an occasion to be marked and remembered. The strange history of El Negro may be seen as a sort of parable of the dehumanization of Africans, and of the reclaiming of human respect. Perhaps one can liken El Negro to the Unknown Warrior whose tomb is given a central place in Westminster Abbey.
El Negro buried
The remains of El Negro which arrived yesterday were buried this morning in Gaborone in what has been described by many as a sign of victory and unity for Africa.
Foreign affairs minister, Lt. Gen Mompati Merafhe, some senior government officials, as well as a number of Batswana received the remains at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport.
Other dignitaries who were at the airport were the representative of the Organisation of African Unity, Daniel Antonio and members of the diplomatic corps.
Speaking in an interview with BOPA, Antonio described the arrival of El Negro remains in Botswana as a moment of celebration and victory for Africa because it represented the end of a long fight by Africans to give their brother a decent and dignified burial.
Antonio said Botswana was entrusted by the OAU to play a leading role in the repatriation of El Negro's remains because Alphose Arcelin, who initiated the whole process, had indicated that he originated from Botswana.
He said the Spanish government should apologise for dehumanising the body of El Negro by displaying it in a museum but said "I believe at this moment what is important is to give our African friend a decent and dignified burial." Bassirou Sene, charge de Affairs in the Embassy of Senegal also echoed the same sentiments as Antonio and that it also showed that Africans were able to unite to fight challenges they faced together.
Director of the National Museum and Art Gallery, Tiki Pule also said the Spanish government had committed a big mistake because it was unethical to exhibit the remains of a human being in a museum.
Pule said because they were also involved in the repatriation of El Negro's remains they were happy that they had been finally brought here.
She told BOPA that the national museum would continue to undertake more research to find out more about El Negro and also as to what else was exhibited with him or whether he was exhibited out of context.
Also, she said they were in the process of declaring El Negro's grave a national monument and Tsholofelo Park was chosen because of its easy accessibility to members of the public.
Some Batswana who had expected to see a mummified body of El Negro were disappointed at the civic centre where it was lying in state, to find that the remains did not have any flesh on them.
They expressed doubt as to whether what is contained in a rather small casket were the remains of El Negro or something artificial. Some of them were singing gospel songs holding placards which read; "Is it too late for El Negro. We want a post mortem." Even Spanish journalists covering the event expressed disappointment that El Negro they saw in Spain did not look like the one brought to Botswana. In Spain El Negro did not look like a skeleton, they said.
El Negro is an African of Tswana origin who died in 1830 and has been displayed in Spain for the past 170 years.
Historians maintain that his body was taken from Africa to France in 1830 by two brothers, Jules and Eduoard Verraux who stole the body from its grave on the night after he was buried.
The body was displayed in a Paris shop of the Verraux brothers and was sold to a certain Francesc Darder who later bequeathed the remains to the town of Banyoles, north of Barcelona in Spain.
It was in 1992 that Arcelin, a Spanish national of Haitian origin, drew the attention of Africa and the world to the display of El Negro in a Banyoles museum in Spain and five years later the OAU called for the repatriation of the body to Africa.
Minister Merafhe told a news conference on Tuesday that Botswana was morally bound to accept the remains of El Negro to give him a decent and dignified burial on behalf of African and black race.
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Copyright © 2000 University of Botswana History Department
Last updated 5 October 2000