University of Botswana History Department
"El Negro" of Banyoles
[This was the first report on this website of the "El Negro" incident. See the El Negro index page for guide to main coverage.]
Spain wants to "return" to Africa the mummy of a man stolen from his grave by a French "explorer" in the Kalahari in 1888. The Kalahari stretches from South Africa to Angola, and the man's identity and exact place of origin must first be clearly established.
Between December 1991 and March 1992 a minor diplomatic row brewed in Spain over the display of a mummified "Kalahari bushman" in the Francisco Darder natural history museum at Banyoles, a hundred kilometres north of Barcelona.
The well-preserved mummy stood in a glass box, holding a long fishing harpoon of a type associated with the Zambezi and a small hour-glass shaped leather shield of the type associated with Lesotho.
Apparently acquired by Francisco Darder from a French "explorer", Eduard Verraux, in 1916, the body is said to have been taken from a Kalahari grave in 1888. Darder claimed that Verraux and his brother had stolen the body, that of a chief, after a funeral or graveside rite "at midnight when the families and assistants to the ceremony had left the spot."
The display of this trophy of colonial conquest in the Banyoles museum was made into an issue by a a Spanish doctor of Haitian ancestry, apparently with political ambitions in Spain, "as an offence to the black race and to human beings". After an African tour, he succeeded in arousing the support of West African diplomats in Madrid. It was even suggested that African nations might boycott the Olympics in protest.
Citizens of Banyoles countered with tee-shirts declaring their affection for "El Negro", and a chocolate representation of him sold well as an Easter delicacy.
The controversy blew over before the governments of Botswana or South Africa - two of the countries from which the man might have come - made a public stand. But it indicated, pace aboriginal peoples of Australia and North America, that concern over the "scientific" display of Khoisan bodies is likely to increase rather than diminish over the next few years - as Khoisan cultural-political consciousness rises.
At end of 1990s there is still talk of the body being "returned" by Spanish authorities to Botswana, but how and where it could be buried have not yet been settled. The essential precondition is that the Banyoles Museum provides every scrap of evidence on when, how, and where Monsieur Verraux originally acquired the corpse.
Did Verraux really dig up the corpse or merely buy it? The most notorious grave robber in the Kalahari from the 1880s to the 1910s was George Lennox or "Scotty Smith" (1845-1919), a bandit who operated in the northern Cape Colony of South Africa. He made his living by selling Khoisan skeletal material to foreign museums. Like the "resurrectionists" Messrs Burke & Hare in Edinburgh seventy years before, Lennox probably murdered when his grave-robbery did not meet the international demand for Khoisan cadavers.
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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons
Last updated 20 September 1999 (format edited 25 May 2011)