From Africa to Africa

The Return of a Dead Traveller

An Extract from Frank Westerman’s El Negro and Me

December 1983. In a Spanish museum of natural history, nineteen-year-old Frank Westerman finds himself standing face to face with a stuffed African — El Negro. Who is this man? Who stuffed his body? Twenty years later, the author follows El Negro’s journey from Paris (1831), via Barcelona (1888) to the Pyrenees, where he was on display until 1997.
Along the way he brings El Negro to life as a commentator on his time: an unknown black man who — nailed to a pedestal — casts a disturbing perspective on European views of slavery, colonialism and racism.
But what does he say about us, here and now? Through the probing account of his own experiences in development-aid, Frank Westerman also reveals how the historical views on race which El Negro embodies still survive in modern guises.
These two threads in El Negro and Me inevitably lead to post-apartheid South Africa, where the author prepares for a final confrontation with El Negro. The following extract is Westerman’s epilogue.

On 5 October 2000 El Negro was given a Christian burial in Botswana. ‘In the spirit of Jesus Christ,’ the priest said with his hand on the Bible, ‘who also suffered, amen.’
Sitting next to the stage that had been erected to hold the remarkably small casket were dignitaries from Botswana (the first lady, the foreign affairs minister, the parliamentary speaker) and Spain (the ambassador, a dozen or so lesser diplomats and, from Madrid, the curator of the anthropology museum). An awning, supported by two rows of tent poles, protected the guests of honour from the heat of the sun. From the funeral procession’s arrival in Tsholofelo Park (in an outer suburb of the capital Gaborone) to the final salute by white-gloved buglers, the ceremony lasted exactly two hours.
After each speech, Setswana songs played over the speakers and the rows of mourners swayed in time. Their parasols swayed along with them and that produced what was possibly the day’s most enchanting scene. In any case, the singing helped to dispel the sense of horror that had taken charge of the crowd: all those who had walked past the bier (four feet long) the previous evening had felt cheated: this couldn’t possibly be El Negro. Only a skull had been visible under the glass window, that was all, and that sight was hard to reconcile with the pictures of El Negro in his museum getup that had appeared in the Botswana Gazette and The Reporter. The few journalists who were familiar with the autopsy report were just as stunned: the skull on show in the casket had an almost full set of teeth; these hadn’t been visible on the X-rays. People clapped their hands over their mouths, but no one dared to protest out loud.

In Tsholofelo Park a groundsman told me the details of the burial: who stood where (from Alphonse Arcelin and the military band to the ‘special reporter’ Miguel Molina) and the subjects of the speeches (‘the desecration of El Negro’s body’ and ‘re-establishing the dignity of a shared African ancestor’). To prepare for the ceremony they had mowed the grass and pulled a rusty climbing frame out like a rotten molar. The only thing that survived was the rocket that justified the name ‘Luna Park’.
The curator of Spain’s National Anthropology Museum, under whose supervision El Negro had been stripped back to the bone, wore a black cocktail dress, knee-length or maybe shorter. This dress did not make her decision to deliver El Negro in a dismantled state any more palatable; it was black enough, her dress, but way too revealing — people were still muttering about it long after.
In 2004 the grave looks neglected and battered. Twelve pickets in the national colours of black, white and blue (meaning: racial harmony plus the promise of water) mark a small patch of ground. The posts are crooked and someone has stolen the decorative chain that once linked them. A scratched sign in English and Setswana announces:

DIED C. 1830

No one ever heard another word about the original plan to declare this place a national monument.
There is no headstone or marble slab, just a hole that has been filled and covered with sand.

From El Negro and Me (El Negro en ik, 2004)
By Frank Westerman
Translated by David Colmer

First published in The Low Countries, 2006