At a Glance:
Ornithologist, botanist, collector
Bird names: 4
Content note: This profile includes discussion of grave desecration, trade in human remains, and the display of people in museums.
Verreaux’s Coua (Coua verreauxi)
Verreaux’s Eagle (Aquila verreauxii)
Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl (Bubo lacteus)
Verreaux’s Monal Partridge (Tetraophasius obscurus)
Jules Verreaux (1807-1873) was a man who carved out a niche for himself. He wasn’t just your average 19th century gentleman naturalist, thank you very much; nor was the family business established by his father, Maison Verreaux, simply trading in skins and feathers. He and his brother Edouard made their names building elaborate taxidermy dioramas for museums and wealthy collectors– the first company to do so. Some of their dioramas are still on display in museums around the world.
As well as being a purveyor of all manner of natural history objects, the Maison Verreaux was a hub for naturalists and scientists from around the world. This was the same time that Cuvier was working at the Paris Museum, and Jules was a major contributor of specimens to the taxonomist’s effort to describe all of the life he could. Business was good– good enough, in fact, for the Verreauxs to finance expeditions all over the world.
It was on one of these expeditions to modern-day Botswana that Jules committed the crime that he is most remembered for. Jules may have been most interested in birds– but his taxidermy skills with all manner of animals were renowned, and he was always on the lookout for new projects to test himself with. It was with this in mind– with an eye tuned to see everything as potentially suitable for display– that he watched the funeral of a young warrior in 1830.
The trade in African bodies was not unfamiliar territory for Verreaux. He had assisted his uncle in exporting human skulls and skeletons to France as a boy, and his friend Cuvier had been deeply involved in “studying” a kidnapped Khoikhoi woman named Sara Baartman in both life and death. So he likely thought little of the morality of his actions when he returned that night and stole the warrior’s body. He mounted the skin and some of the bones, then shipped the remains back to France, packed in a crate with animals prepared similarly.
The remains of this young man– variously described as Tswana, San, or Khoikhoi– had a prolonged and horrible afterlife. Displayed in several museums throughout the 19th century, by 1916 the grisly exhibit has arrived in its penultimate home: the Darder Museum in the small Catalonian town of Banyoles. There he remained until 1997, when public outcry finally resulted in his removal. In 2000, the remains were finally repatriated to Botswana and given a proper, final resting place, 170 years after they had been stolen.
Unfortunately these sorts of exhibits were not unusual in the 19th century. As the study of biology began to take on a shape that is recognizable today, the desire to explore and catalog the world was without a second thought expanded to humans– to providing a scientific legitimization for racism. The case of the young man whose remains Verreaux stole is notable because of how long the public spectacle lasted, but thousands of others still remain in collections, out of the sight of the public and far from home.
This event was not a one-off for the Verreauxs, either. For a time, there was a view that they actually participated in this gruesome pursuit less than other naturalists and collectors of the time, and that this case was a singular anomaly. That is not the case, though: in 2017, a Verreaux diorama that had been on display for over a century at the Carnegie Museum, whose depiction of lions attacking a man riding a camel had previously been believed to only contain taxidermied animals alongside a synthetic model of a person, were revealed during restoration work to contain a human skull and teeth. Since the Verreauxs were often not entirely truthful in their notes and descriptions of specimens, it is unknown how many other cases may exist, their actual provenance still unrecognized.
Chambers, Delaney. 2017. “150-year-old diorama surprises scientists with human remains.” National Geographic. [link]
Jeurgens, Chris, and Karabinos, Michael. 2020. Paradoxes of curating colonial memory. Archival Science. [link]
Molina, Miquel. 2002. More notes on the Verreaux brothers. Pula: Botswana Journal of African Studies 16(1). pp. 30-36. [link]
Scully, Pamela. 2006. Bringing the body home: the story of El Negro (review). Journal of Southern African Studies 32(1), pp. 196-197. [link]
Weeks, Sheldon G. 2004. Review: The Return of El Negro: The Compelling Story of Africa’s Unknown Soldier. Botswana Notes and Records 36, pp. 175-177. [link]