Daily Archives: August 9, 2013

El Negro


Several people have told me that a visit to the Polare book store in Maastricht—since 2004 housed in a centuries-old Dominican church—is certainly worth a special trip to Limburg (the southernmost part of the Netherlands). So far, I have not been in this bookstore. But since just over four weeks there is, much closer to where I live, a new bookstore that no doubt rivals the one in Maastricht. The well-known Waanders bookstore in Zwolle has moved to the Broerenkerk (one of the many old churches in this historic city).

In a tourist leaflet I read a description of this church (that, like the one in Maastricht, was built by the Dominicans): The Broerenkerk is a late gothic ‘hall church’. The choir is in the main nave, adjacent to the cloister. The southern transept is more narrow and shorter. The length, measured on the outside, is 65,5 meters, while the church is (also measured on the outside) 19 meters wide. The distance from the floor, with its tombstones, to the highest part of the main nave is 26 meters.’  So, we are talking about a substantial building! The interior has now been adapted to its new function. The magnificent church organ (that will be used for regular concerts), still dominates in its full splendor the wall at the end of the nave. ‘Waanders in de Broeren’ has a first-class ‘grand café’.  But it is what is claims to be: a very good general bookstore with a wide assortment of books.

Last night I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this church-made-bookstore. Of course, I succeeded in finding a few books to my liking. But, unfortunately, the book that I was specially looking for (Ingenieurs van de Ziel by Frank Westerman, a Dutch author) was temporarily out of print. I was reminded of this title, when, earlier this week, I was reading another book by Westerman: El Negro en ik.

If I am not mistaken, Westerman has so far written five books. He writes non-fiction, but one reads his books as if they are novels full of suspense. If you read Dutch and have not read his book De Graanrepubliek, about the atrocious way in which the (very pious) grain barons in Eastern-Groningen (in the North-Eastern part of the Netherlands) treated their laborers in the early part of the last century, you should certainly do so. The book has already gone through about 30 printings.

But El Nego en Ik also is a book that is a must. It describes the search for the identity and background of an African, who came from what once was called Bechuanaland (today’s Botswana). In the early nineteenth century this African was ‘stuffed’—like a taxidermist ‘stuffs’ an animal—and exhibited in a museum in northern Spain. It immediately raises the question how in the world one can explain the utter disrespect of (white) people in colonial times towards the (black) local population.

While reading about El Negro I was reminded of a visit many years ago to the famous National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.  An American colleague gave me a tour through the museum. He had some friends on the staff of the museum, who allowed us to have a look behind the scenes. We came in a large hall, with high cabinets along the walls, with an endless number of drawers. Each of these drawers contained a human skeleton—a skull and a collection of bones that had once been a person of flesh and blood. I did not ask how the museum had been able to acquire this macabre collection.

I was also reminded of a plaque I recently saw in Urk, attached to the fence around the churchyard next to the church that is opposite the monument dedicated to all the Urker fishermen that, in in the course of time never came back from the sea. The plaque states that in this churchyard six skulls have been reburied, after they have been returned to Urk by the university museum in Utrecht. They were returned to where in times past they had, most likely, been stolen, on the pretext that they were needed for scientific purposes.

Often we see a great disrespect for dead people of the past, in particular for those from other cultures. It is easy to forget that the mummies and ‘bog bodies’ that are exhibited in museums at one time were real, living human beings, with real families, who were greatly missed when they died. In his book El Negro en Ik Frank Westerman helps us to realize that it was not even so very long ago that black men and women were treated like animals, and were sometimes exhibited as living objects, or—after their death—as ‘stuffed’ objects. It is impossible to read this fascinating book with a definite sense of shame.