The humiliating and haunting return of El Negro to Africa

El Negro received a warm welcome when he was returned to Botswana in 2000
El Negro received a warm welcome when he was returned to Botswana in 2000

The October 2000 repatriation of the human remains popularly known as ‘El Negro’ (Spanish for ‘The black one’) constitutes a textbook example of how not to carry out such an exercise.

The remains were returned in an incomplete and undignified manner in gross violation of professional protocols and ethics, as well as indigenous sensibilities, while key stakeholders were not consulted.

What was thus meant to have been a triumphant return of a son to his soil, bringing closure and a degree of reconciliation to an evil chapter in the annals of Europe’s violation of Africans, instead degenerated into controversy.

Who was El Negro? Sometime in 1830 two French brothers, Jules and Edouard Verreaux, who had come to the Cape Colony as prominent taxidermists to collect fauna specimens, witnessed the burial of a man they would thereafter label as a ‘Bouchouana’ or ‘Betjouana’.  Under the cover of night the pair dug up the body, which they eviscerated, removing the skin, skull and lower arms, while leaving the rest of the body out in the open to be devoured by jackals.

The retained human remains were stuffed like those of an animal to create an exhibit, which was publicly displayed for the first time in 1831 as ‘Le Betjouana’ at Maison Verreaux in Paris.

Illustrations and photos from 1831 to 1990s consistently show the figure carrying a typical 19th century Setswana shield and other weapons in a manner suggestive of a Motlhaping warrior of the era.

As late as 1872 the figure continued to be on display in Paris at the Palais d’Industrie; but by 1880 the remains had been sold to a Spanish collector, Francesc Darder. Thereafter it was exhibited in Barcelona as ‘El Bechuana’ before going on permanent display from 1916, at the Darder Natural History Museum in Banyoles, Spain. It was there that the figure came to be known as ‘El Negro’, although the museum’s public records continued to identify the remains as ‘Bechuana’.

The continued display of El Negro caused an international sensation in the run up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games when it appeared in tourist brochures. A local doctor of Haitian origin, Alphonse Arcelin, protested that El Negro should be removed from the museum, observing that athletes and spectators would take offence at the sight of a stuffed black man. The then Nigerian Ambassador to Madrid, Yususu Mamman, also expressed dismay that “a stuffed human being can be exhibited in a museum at the end of the 20th century” adding: “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”.

Global outrage was further fanned by international press reports (spearheaded locally by this author). A threatened Pan-African boycott of the Games, supported by some prominent celebrities on both the continent and in the Diaspora, was called off after the Spanish authorities agreed to take up the issue. But, until 1998, Banyoles authorities rejected calls for even the removal of the body from public display.

It was only after the controversy broke that the curator at the Darder Museum began to knowingly make the false claim that El Negro had been “a Bushman from the Kalahari”, in a seemingly misguided attempt at deflection. It was on this premise that the then OAU collectively requested that Botswana receive the body for reburial on behalf of the continent.

Consultations for the repatriation were already at an advanced stage in February 2000 when the Spanish authorities abruptly announced a further delay supposedly based on controversy over the human rights status of ‘Bushmen’ in Botswana.

As it was by the beginning of 2000 UB scholars, in contact with counterparts in South Africa, Spain and elsewhere had already accessed evidence that confirmed the details of El Negro’s South African origin and subsequent exhibition as a ‘Betjouana’ warrior. This process was facilitated by the internet and translation software.

An autopsy, carried out in a Catalan hospital in 1995, had further confirmed that the victim had been about 27-years-old at the time of his death, probably caused by pneumonia.  A DNA sample was also reportedly collected. Meanwhile, museum authorities in South Africa speculated that the body was associated with the remains of Kgatlane, the site of an abandoned Batlhaping settlement; the descendants of whose population were still living in the region.

However, in a revised 2019 version of his book, El Negro and Me the Dutch journalist Frank Westerman affirms that the Verreaux brothers had not travelled beyond Tulbagh in the Western Cape. If this is true it is improbable that ‘Le Betjouana’ was walking around as a warrior when he died. At the time many captive southern Batswana were being trafficked into the region. This traffic grew after the 1809 ban of the further import of overseas slaves into the Cape Colony, resulting in an increase in slave raiding along the Colony’s northern border.

Most of the captives were southern Basotho or Batswana, such as the Batlhaping, though many Khoisan speakers were also taken. A missionary writing in 1829 thus noted:

 “Amongst the Griquas and Bergenaars, who are in considerable connection with the Cape, slaves obtained by barter, or by capture from Bootchuanas [Batswana] and Bushmen, are a common article of saleable property”.

While El Negro’s repatriation was officially heralded as a victory for African redemption, in Botswana the popular mood quickly turned to dismay and anger after his arrival. The Spanish government had not sent us the body that we had anticipated. El Negro’s tissue, as well as the artefacts that had been on display with him, were nowhere to be seen. Instead of an expected human body in a casket what was received was a skull and a few bones in a unvarnished box whose display at City Hall gave rise to consternation among the hundreds who lined up to pay their last respects.

Adding insult to injury, the Spanish authorities present provided no explanation of what had become of the rest of El Negro. In the absence of any documentation of his provenance local officials were unable to even authenticate the identity of the bones received. Still further controversy was caused both locally and among visitors over the decision to rebury El Negro at Tsholofelo Park, a community playground, rather than at a cemetery.

Beyond offending local cultural norms it was popularly assumed that his soul would not rest in peace under such circumstance. The conflation by a speaker at his reburial ceremony of ‘El Negro’ with ‘El Nino’ served to reinforce perceptions that the subsequent onset of drought was connected to his abused spirit.

Almost two decades later, we still do not have any explanation or restitution for what is missing, which along with the DNA analysis and other records should have been returned in accordance with the relevant international protocols.

*Presentation delivered at Commonwealth Association of Museums Conference on Human Remains Management held at the University of Botswana

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