Tuesday, May. 10, 2011

The Purloined African

Well past the beginning of the last century, it was not uncommon for intrepid and wealthy Europeans visiting Africa to bring along a taxidermist or two. A safari could always yield a prize rhino or lion that would need stuffing. But, in 1830, a pair of French taxidermists took their trade a further step, exhuming the body of a deceased African man from the Kalahari desert. They had the corpse embalmed and stuffed for show in Europe, its light skin polished black to make him look more "African" — a sign of an era when such racialized curiosity in other (and often subject) peoples was common throughout the Western world. The body ended up on display in a small museum in the northern Spanish town of Banyoles for the better part of century until a local doctor of Haitian descent complained about it in 1992. The ensuing controversy drummed up much support in the town among those who wanted to keep the specimen — commemorative chocolates were issued celebrating the man known simply as "El Negro" — but the body was eventually returned to Botswana in 2000 and given a full burial in front of hundreds of local dignitaries and foreign diplomats.