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The Negro of Banyoles

It’s one thing to keep the mummified body of a thousand year old pharaoh or a monk in a glass case in a museum, and another to stuff the dead body of an African warrior and display it like a trophy along with wild animals. As recently as eighteen years ago, you could have seen him at the Darder Natural History museum in the city of Banyoles, near Barcelona, Spain. He was about four and a half feet tall, slightly stooped, shoulder raised, with a spear in one hand and a shield on the other. His charcoal-colored body was covered by a small orange loincloth wrapped around his waist. For the better part of a century, generations of Europeans gaped at the half-naked body of this nameless African bushman, who was known only as “El Negro” or “The Black Man", before an international protest forced the Spanish government to send him back to his homeland in Botswana for a proper burial.

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El Negro is believed to have been a member of the Khoisan ethnic group, who lived and died somewhere in Southern Africa in 1831. His death and burial was witnessed by a French collector and trader of natural history specimens named Jules Verreaux, who returned to the burial site under cover of night along with some grave robbers and dug up the African's body.

Verreaux intended to ship the body back to France and so he prepared and preserved the African warrior's corpse by using metal wire as a spine, wooden boards as shoulder blades and newspaper as a stuffing material. Then he shipped the body to Paris along with a batch of stuffed animals in crates. Shortly thereafter, the African’s body appeared in a showroom at No. 3, Rue Saint Fiacre.

Verreaux received lots of praise for his effort and for his fearlessness for disregarding the dangers to his own life and stealing the body of a native. A reviewer for the newspaper Le Constitutionnel observed that “individual of the Bechuana people" attracted more attention than the giraffes, hyenas or ostriches, and that the specimen was a curious one. “He is small in posture, black-skinned, and his head is covered in woolly frizzy hair,” the newspaper described.

More than half a century later, El Negro was bought by a Spanish vet named Francisco Darder, who presented him in the world exhibition in Barcelona in 1888—not in person, but in a catalogue where his sketch was reproduced.

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In 1888, this image of the taxidermied corpse of the Negro of Banyoles appeared in a catalogue of the Barcelona museum.

In 1916, he was acquired by the Darder Museum in Banyoles, a small city at the foot of the Pyrenees. The museum curator applied a layer of shoe polish over him to make him seem blacker and mounted him on a pedestal incorrectly labeled as the "Bushman of the Kalahari". By then, his origins had been largely forgotten and he gradually came to be known as “El Negro”.

For years, “El Negro” shared the museum’s “Mammal Room” along with several taxidermied apes and the skeleton of a gorilla. Few appeared to have been bothered that the stuffed black oddity was once a real man who had a name and identity and a life, until the early 1990s, when Alphonse Arcelin, a Spanish doctor of Haitian origin, wrote to the mayor of Banyoles in protest asking him to remove the African man’s remains from display.

negro-of-banyoles-4Arcelin’s request received wide publicity, attracting the attention and support of many prominent persons around the world including Kofi Annan, the Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, who condemned the exhibit as "repulsive" and "barbarically insensitive", setting in motion the wheels that would eventually result in the return of El Negro’s remains to Botswana—but not without resistance. The Catalan people had grown very fond of their black man and were reluctant to hand him over. To show their love and support, local residents wore T-shirts with slogans such as "Keep El Negro" and "Banyoles loves you, El Negro." At Easter children were treated to miniature chocolate reproductions of him.

The mayor defended the display. "We have mummies and skulls and even human skins in the museum," he said. "What is the difference between those things and a stuffed African?"

The museum’s curator also agreed. "El Negro is our property. It's our business and nobody else's. Human rights only apply to living people, not to the dead. 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.... [So] the talk of racism is absurd."

It was not until March 1997 that the museum succumbed to mounting international pressure and removed the African from display. Three years later, it began its final journey home in a coffin wrapped in Botswana's national blue and white flag.

On 5 October 2000, he was given a Christian burial at a public park in the city of Gaborone. The metal plaque on his tomb reads:

El Negro
Died c. 1830
Son of Africa
Carried to Europe in Death
Returned Home to African Soil
October 2000

It is still not known who this "son of Africa" was, what was his true name, or exactly where he came from. Although an autopsy carried out in 1995 revealed that he probably died of pneumonia. He was about 27 years old.

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The tomb of El Negro in Tsholofelo Park in Gaborone, Botswana.

2 comments:

  1. Well: Until 1800, there was the belive that only a dead Negro was a good Negro. That believe surfaced again in the 80's in the US Police departments ...

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  2. I hope they made a replica for in the museum. He should be burried and I am glad he is. But a replica with a discription of his travels can make a powerfull visual of how poorly humans treated each others in history, in this case people with dark skin. Something that we should never forget. Luckely it keeps getting harder en harder for new generations to believe that the ancestors of some of their friends/family/co-workers/classmates onces were seen as 'beasts and not human'. That will also makes it easily to forget that we humans easily can become cruel; so reminders are neccesairy.

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