Jules Pierre, Jean Baptiste Edouard and Alexis Verreaux were all sons of the famous Parisian Taxidermist Jacques Philippe Verreaux who founded in 1800 the famous Parisian taxidermy emporium, Maison E. Verreaux.
At number 6 Boulevard Montmartre, France, Maison Verreaux quickly gained a sound reputation throughout Europe in the field of Taxidermy, and as an establishment active in the dealing of rare and unusual natural history specimens from around the world. The list of Verreaux clients ranged from princes to public museums, and at a later stage of life, Edouard Verreaux was to share an important period of ornithological discoveries with his English counterpart, John Gould.
Born in 1807, Jules Verreaux showed an exceptional aptitude towards the field of Taxidermy. At the early age of 12 and in the company of his uncle, Pierre-Antoine Delalande, Jules ventured to South Africa and the Cape in 1818. Their most significant discovery was that of a 75 ft long whale washed up on the beach at False Bay. Jean and his uncle remained in South Africa for around 2 years and when they returned in 1821, bought back with them a staggering 131,405 specimens, most of which were plants. Other items included 288 mammals, 2,205 birds, 322 reptiles, 265 fish, 3,875 shellfish, human skulls of various African native tribes as well as nearly 2 dozen skeletons unearthed from an old Cape Town cemetery and the Grahamstown battlefield of 1819.
In 1825, Jules returned to Africa to resume collecting specimens. Finding there was more work there than he could handle, Jules sent for his younger brother Edouard in 1830 so that he may double the size of the collections.
Edouard brought the material back to Paris in 1832 (?), but later that same year returned to South Africa to re-join Jules, this time accompanied by the third and youngest of the brothers, Alexis.
Amongst the material brought back from Africa was the preserved body of an African native, presumed one of the Bathlhaping people which inhabited the confluence of the Orange and Vaal Rivers, possibly in the village of Kgathlane. A young man of approximately 27 years of age who had died around 1830, his body was stolen by the Verreaux brothers, stuffed in the traditional methods of preservation and subsequently shipped to France along with an enormity of material collected by the two brothers.
A press report from the "Le Constitutionnel" dated 15th November 1831, describes the event of the return of the Verreaux brothers back to Paris, praising the endurance, perseverance and triumphs of the" young compatriots" of France during their explorations of Southern Africa. The report went on to say:
"But their greatest curiosity is an individual of the nation of the Betjouanas. This man is preserved by the means by which naturalists prepare their specimens and reconstitute their form, and, so to speak, their inert life. He is of small stature, black of skin, his head covered by short woolly and curly hair, armed with arrows and a lance, clothes in an antelope skin, (with a bag ?) made of bush pig, full of small glass beads, seeds and of small bones".
The brothers displayed the body of the African tribesman in their shop in Paris as the 'Bechuana", that is a Tswana person from the region of South Africa/Botswana, until the body was purchased by a Spanish naturalist by the name of Frencesc Darder, who exhibited the native at the 1888 Barcelona World Exhibition. Upon Darders death, the body along with the rest of his natural history collection went to a new museum named after the Spanish collector in Banyoles. Here the body became popularly known as "El Negro" because it had been painted black, and became a symbol of Spanish exploitation and enslavement of black Africans.
After much resistance from the Franscesc Darder Museum of Natural History in Banyoles Spain, the body of El Negro was finally repatriated back to Africa and re-buried in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana on October 5,2000.
Several significant collections were sent back to Paris but the final collection was lost in a shipwreck off La Rochelle in 1838. Jules returned to the family business in 1838 where he stayed under its employ until 1842.
The brothers frequently travelled abroad in search of specimens, both on business commission and for the purpose of stocking the shop in Paris.
The name and reputation of Maison Verreaux spread across the world and soon it was supplying specimens in America, South Africa and elsewhere throughout Europe. Inspired by the success of John Gould in the Antipodes, Jules left France for Australia in 1842 where he spent the next 5 years collecting specimens for the Museum des Plantes. It is recorded that Jules Verreaux collected some 11,500 natural history specimens during his visit to Australia.
It was to be the last of the Verreaux’s expeditions and when Jules returned to France, he continued working in Maison Verreaux until the business was dissolved in 1855.
In compiling the material for his works, "Birds of Australia", John Gould had amassed one of the most important and complete collections of avifauna specimens for any one single country. Within excess of 1800 skins ( hundreds of which were type specimens) representing not less than 600 species of birds and coupled with Gould’s zoology collection of some 1000 specimens of nearly 300 species, it was Gould’s dearest wish that this Australian collection be acquired by the British National Museum.
In a letter dated April 9th, 1847, Gould literally begged the British Museum to purchase the collection in its entirety for the meagre sum of 1000 pounds He in turn was met with a less than enthusiastic response to his wishes by the trustees to see a final resting place for this important collection in the museum of his country. Gould must have been bitterly disappointed at the museum's decision to decline his offer and a month later on May 8th, he wrote to Edward Wilson of Pembrokshire, offering him his Australian Bird collection for 800 pounds, or for 1000 pounds to include the eggs.
The entire collection of 1858 specimens was purchased by Edward Wilson, who subsequently entrusted the precious Australian bird skins to Maison Verreaux in Paris for mounting on behalf of his millionaire brother Thomas B. Wilson for ultimate presentation to the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia USA.