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‘El Negro’s humiliating and haunting return to Africa’

Publishing Date : 19 March, 2019

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El Negro was an unknown African man of Tswana origin. His remains were returned from Europe in October 2000, where he had been stuffed and made into a freak exhibit.


Government ministers, diplomats and members of the public attended the burial of the warrior, known as El Negro (the black man), whose body arrived in Gaborone from Spain, where its display angered many Africans. STAFF WRITER AUBREY LUTE replays a presentation by Dr Jeff Ramsay at the Commonwealth Conference Human Remains Management: Extending the conversation throughout Africa.


Dr Ramsay narrated that El Negro’s story is a text book case for the conference on Human remains management. “When he arrived in Gaborone, he was nothing like what was displayed in Spain. This was wrong on all grounds. We expected a coffin to arrive so that people can view the remains, but nothing of that sort happened then.”


Africa has a very dark past in so far as relationship with the West is concerned. Africans have been seen the worst of mistreatment, they have been humiliated, they have scars to attest to the brutality they were subjected to by their colonial masters whose racism still ferment today despite the many years of civilization across the globe. In Botswana, a man dubbed El Negro has become the template of humiliation faced by the Sotho-Tswana people under the colonial rule.


The body of this ancient African warrior stolen from its grave over 170 years ago and displayed in European showcases was reburied in Botswana on in October 2010 in a solemn ceremony attended by more than 1000 people. The remains were lowered into the ground in a coffin draped with the Botswana flag at the popular Tsholofelo Recreational Park in a northern suburb of the capital. A plaque at the site reads: "The body of El Negro was stolen in 1830 and returned on 4 October 2000."


Dr Jeff Ramsay of Livingstone Kolobeng College relieved the humiliation and indignity suffered by El Negro when giving a presentation at the Commonwealth Conference Human Remains Management: Extending the conversation throughout Africa on March 12 at the University of Botswana. With Africa, Botswana included, still under the shadow of the West, Ramsay’s presentation opened old wounds that reminded many that despite Botswana’s peaceful attainment of independence in 1966, those who lived before the transition experienced haunting and daunting experiences under the likes of William Hunt and George Lennox. The former transported “Bushmen” for popular entertainment while the former sold “Bushmen” remains for various collections.


Dr Ramsay bulleted some incidents to demonstrate how El Negro was humiliated even after his arrival in Africa. He was buried at Tsholofelo Park instead of the Gaborone cemetery, no explanation as to why at the Park; He was associated with El Nino, because it coincided with his burial here; There is a secondary controversy on whether he was from South Africa or Botswana; DNA that was taken from him was never reported back; therefore his story is humiliating and daunting, argues Dr Ramsay.


Back in 2010, Foreign Minister, the late Mompati Merafhe, who laid a wreath at the grave, condemned the two French taxidermists who stole El Negro's body from its grave in 1830 and put in on display in Paris before selling it to a Spanish museum. And for his part the then Spanish Ambassador to Botswana Eduardo Garrigues said "administrative and political procedures" had delayed the body's return. He said the display of the warrior's body had been an "insult to the dignity of all Africans".


Botswana officials had angrily said that El Negro was "displayed like a stuffed antelope", but Dr Ramsay’s depiction of El Negro’s return and stay at his resting place mocks this statement. His return was more like a rendition of the Paris stunts which saw El Negro’s body being publicly displayed to the amusement of Europeans. Today, El Negro’s grave is not noticeable and is a forgotten nonevent. Pressure for the body to be returned mounted after Haitian doctor Alphonse Arcelin, resident in Spain, complained to the United Nations in 1992 at the undignified treatment of the remains.


Arcelin's complaint was followed by a bitter row in Banyoles between those in favour of repatriating the body and those who wanted to keep it. Records show that the suspected warrior was withdrawn from exhibition in 1997 and kept in a depot pending a decision, which came last February when the town council agreed that his remains should return to Botswana for burial.


It is evident though that the exact place of origin of El Negro has not been determined, although he was originally referred to as El Bechuana or Motswana (inhabitant of what was then Bechuanaland). The late Merafhe had tried to put the issue of origin to rest by saying: "He was an African and we wanted him home, period."

How El Negro’s remains were stolen from Africa

While travelling in modern South Africa, Jules Verreaux and his brother witnessed the burial of a Motswana warrior. He returned to the burial site under the cover of night to dig up the African’s body, which he subsequently stuffed. He then shipped the body 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 as an exhibit.


La Figero described the Verreaux brothers as “real vampires” who were only interested in dealing with the skin of the exhumed corpse. After eviscerating him to stay with only the skin, the skull and a few bones, the brothers left the rest to the jackals”. In their attempt to cover themselves with their sale, the Verreaux tuned the corpse smearing it with bitumen to blacken its skin more. “That seemed more exotic”!

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