University of Botswana History Department
"El Negro of Banyoles"

El Negro: Botswana press articles 1992
by Jeff Ramsay

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Botswana Press Reporting on "El Negro" in 1992:
"Lost in Time" and "Why El Negro Matters"
by Jeff Ramsay

[These columns by Jeff Ramsay were written in 1992. They were based on imperfect press reports available in English at the time, which garbled the researches of the Spanish newspaper El Pais. It was not until February-March 2000 that we learned that the body of El Negro was stolen in 1830, not 1880, that the body was stolen from near the Orange river and not from the Kalahari, and that he was called "The Bechuana" throughout the 19th century.]


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April 1992: "Lost in Time"

Mmegi/The Reporter (Gaborone) 3 April 1992
Back to the Future no. 67: "Lost in Time"

Recently Sol Kerzner, Sun International's flamboyant tycoon, gave a briefing on the progress of his "Lost City." According to the publicity, this R 730 million Sun City addition will be "Disney World in Africa". By the end of the year its opulent buildings and 25 hectors of "exotic jungle" will offer visitors the fantasy of discovering the abandoned remains of an "ancient" civilization. Besides the luxuries of "The Palace", they will be able to enjoy the world's largest water park, featuring giant slides and man made waterfalls, play golf on a course with live crocodiles at the 13th hole, and visit the mysteries of "The Temple of Creation".

Kerzner expects his Xanadu to become the centrepiece of regional tourism. For the Mangope regime this holds the prospect of a further windfall in foreign exchange earnings and expanded local employment: Sun International has promised to give hiring preference to "Bophutatswana citizens."

Does Kerzner's cross border empire hold any local lessons? Heretofore the domestic industry has remained committed to high cost, low volume vacations, but is there also a market for high volume, labour intensive, resorts? Would the promotion of fantasy themes, like the Lost City, or the ongoing "Tahitian" construction at the Wild Coast Sun, compromise Botswana's cultural integrity?

Ironically the fabled "Lost City of the Kalahari" is one of this nation's most enduring legends. This myth originated with the 1886 publication of a Gilarmi Farini's Through the Kalahari . "The Great" Farini, aka William Hunt, was a North American acrobat turned anthropological entertainer who, in 1885, journeyed from Cape Town to Lehututu collecting "bushmen" for his "missing links" exhibition. In his book, and subsequent European tour, Hunt claimed that he had seen the ruins of a "great civilization" located somewhere in western Botswana.

As I pointed out in a previous column (10-5-91) Hunt's tableaus of captured !Xo speakers was part of a wider phenomenon in which generations of Khiosan, both live and dead, where exploited as anthropological entertainment. Now a ghost from these nearly forgotten horror shows is threatening to disrupt this year's Olympic Games.

About 100 km from the host city of Barcelona, Spain, lies the small town of Banyoles. There, displayed in a glass case at the Natural History Museum, can be found the mummified, stuffed remains of "El Negro", who is supposed to have been a local Khoisan. The body was exported to Europe sometime before 1888, possibly by the "notorious white bandit George Lennox" also known as "Scotty Smith", who, according to Neil Parsons, "earned part of his living by grave robbing and exporting Khoisan bones to the expanding museum services of Europe and North America."

In 1888 the stuffed human was purchased at a Barcelona carnival by Fransece Darder, Banyoles' "eccentric scientist." Darder donated his private anthropological collection, which also includes the remains of several indigenous Americans, to public in 1916.

The current international controversy surfaced when Madrid's Nigerian embassy noticed "El Negro" in Olympic tourist brochures. Ambassador Yususu Mamman then went public with his dismay that "a stuffed human being can be exhibited in a museum at the end of the twentieth century" adding: "I have already consulted with other African countries and we are making a protest at the highest levels of the Olympic Organizing Committee in Barcelona and the Spanish Foreign Ministry."

In the face of another threatened Pan-African sports boycott some Spaniards have been advocating that the body be returned to its presumed Botswana home for reburying. But Banyoles' town council has so far proved unyielding, while T-shirts emblazoned with "Banyoles loves you, el Negro, Don't go" are being sold. As I go to press the world awaits an official Botswana reaction.

Still on the general subject of lost items I must confess that, like millions of other Mmegi readers around the globe, I am never entirely sure what this column's contents will be until I open the paper. Each week I fax between 80 and 90 lines of text to the bustling newsrooms of this nation's most feared periodical, with the expectation that 1-5 of them will somehow disappear.

I do not suppose it could be the fault of the fearless staff. Perhaps my missing value added text is being eaten up by a computer virus at typesetting, or stolen from the graphics room by a tikolash. Gakeitse, I can only appeal that when you next find yourself reading a sentence which starts in the present and ends in the past please give your eyes, and this author, the benefit of the doubt.

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May 1992: Why "El Negro" matters

Mmegi/The Reporter (Gaborone) 8 May 1992
Back 4D Future no.71: Why "El Negro" matters

Sandy Grant's 22 April "Etcetera, Etcetera" [column in the Midweek Sun, Gaborone] was on target in decrying a seeming lack of concern over Alice Mogwe's report to Botswana Christian Council, on the human rights status of "Basarwa." This document contains allegations that Remote Area detainees have had rubber rings placed tightly around their testicles and/or plastic bags over their faces during police interrogations.

Mogwe's, not unprecedented, findings demand further investigation and, if confirmed, action. In the absence of an official response, the public may be left reacting to hearsay.

But, while focusing on one potential outrage, we need not lose sight of another. In this respect Grant misses the point in his assertion that "The rumpus over the long deal El Negro should not be allowed to distract us from more immediate horrors."

Beyond the fact that "the mummified Mosarwa" has caused greater concern in Lagos and London than Lehututu (his possible hometown), both controversies are about the same issue: the continued marginalization of this region's Khoisan speaking communities.

In the past the lands and properties of Southern Africa's Khoisan were frequently expropriated by more powerful neighbors, the Boers and to lessor, but significant, extent other Africans. Some maintained a degree of autonomy in marginal environments, such as the Okavango and Kgalagadi interior. Many more were reduced to servitude, either as labourers on settler farms or the malata hunters and herders of privileged Bakgalagari and Batswana.

That patterns of Khoisan exploitation have survived into the late twentieth century can, in part, be attributed to the persistence of the Bushman/San stereotype. As developed by generations of anthropologists and other assorted charlatans the terms "Bushman" and "San", have been used to define small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, who are often assumed to possess such physical characteristics as "peppercorn" hair, "yellowish" complexion, small stature, steatopygia, and (according to Laurens Van der Post) exotic genitalia.

Whereas eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europeans frequently imagined "Bushmen" as wild, even cannibalistic, savages (who could thus be hunted down as vermin), in recent decades the stereotype has been romanticized into the "Gods must be Crazy" fantasy of a childlike "Harmless/Little People", who peacefully survive as the isolated, dancing innocents of nature's "Last/Untamed/Wild Eden."

It is unhistorical view. For centuries supposed Bushmen/San/Basarwa have owned livestock, engaged in metallurgy, and been integrated into global trade networks. Robben Island's first political prisoners were "San", Kimberly's first miners included "Bushmen", and early Sekgalagari oral traditions speak of the "Basarwa" having "dikgoshi". In 1905 the Protectorate administration estimated that "Bushmen" accounted for 50% of all domesticly employed wage labourers.

El Negro reminds us of the origins of the myth, which continues to distort popular perceptions, and thus public policy, towards the over 60,000 Botswana citizens who belong to various, ethnolinguistically distinct Khoisan speaking communities (||Ana (Gana), Kxoe, Nharo, Tyua, /ui (Gwi), !Xo, Zhu (Dzu), to name but a few.)

The stereotype was initially popularized in Europe as a tawdry form of popular entertainment. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hundreds of "Bushmen" or "Earthmen", as well as an occasional "Pygmy" were enslaved and exported from Africa as living specimens for "missing links" exhibitions.

Depicted as "wild" and/or "noble savages", they were thus paraded before audiences in salons, fairs, circuses, and anthropological "lectures". Thus the first locals who traveled to such places as Berlin, London and (Coney Island) New York were captured !Xo.

The earliest known victim was Saartjie Baartman, the original "Hottentot Venus", who, after her death in 1815, became part of the collection at the Paris Museum of Mankind . Given that El Negro was purchased in his present state at an 1888 Barcelona carnival, it seems likely that he died in captivity and was stuffed at the behest of a showman owner. Undoubtedly many other anthropological collections, besides those at Banyoles and Paris, also incorporate such human artifacts.

The media's discovery of El Negro will be significant if it encourages a greater questioning of the Bushman/San stereotype, along with the anthropological and textbook literature that promotes it. Unless this happens the fundamentally false image of Basarwa as timeless, Stone Age hunter-gathers will remain a part of the local J.C. and Cambridge syllabuses, museum displays, and, above all, public prejudice.

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Copyright © 2000 Jeff Ramsay
Last updated 30 September 2000