There are probably very few crimes that shock, anger and pain most Africans more than the looting of human remains of their relatives, friends or persons from their societies and countries. Most of us wonder what the looters intend to do with the bodies. Are the looters and holders perhaps cannibals who see in the looted bodies feasts of unimagined qualities? Or are they perhaps juju worshipers who intend to use parts of the bodies they hold for alleged beneficial results for themselves and worse still, use these remains to effect deleterious changes in the lives and fates of the relatives of the deceased? What is certain is that in most African societies there are age-old, well-defined ceremonies for the burial of the deceased and specific filial and parental duties for the surviving relatives. The non-performance of these duties can haunt living relatives and friends for decades. Many unsuccessful undertakings by living persons may be attributed to non-performance of such duties. These relatives are in a permanent state of intense mourning and often cannot concentrate on their daily lives and as a result cannot make any advancement in life.
Many Africans cannot believe that in our times, in the 21st century, Europeans have still been arguing that they have a right to hold on to the human remains of Africans they either conquered in their nefarious colonialist wars or stole by their perverse desecration of buried persons in cemeteries in their colonies. The Germans at first denied having any such human remains but reluctantly admitted having them whilst refusing to state the numbers they are holding. In the last few years some human remains have been returned to Namibia, but we still do not how many are in the depots of the various German universities and institutions. The Prussian Foundation for Cultural Heritage(SPK) has finally given details of the number of human remains it still holds and declared its readiness to negotiate their return. We reproduce below, a statement by the Tanzanian activist, Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, Berlin Postkolonial, who has pursued the matter over the last 15 years urging the Germans to return the Tanzanian ancestors. We learn that the SPK has 264 heads and skeletons from Tanzania.
An exhibition in 2011 in the Reiss-Engelheim Museum, Mannheim, entitled‚ Schädelkult - Kopf und Schädel in der Kulturgeschichte des Menschen’, Skull Cult--Head and Skull in Human Cultural History,2 Oct.2011-29April 2012) gives an idea of how widespread the availability of skulls in Germany is. Some 32 institutions lent their skulls for the exhibition. These institutions are located in Bad Buchau, Bad Säckingen, Berlin, Bonn, Frankfurt am Main, Freiburg i.Brisgau, Giessen, Hamburg, Hannover, Heidelberg, Kassel, Konstanz, Koblenz, Kõln, Kranenburg, Landshut, Mettmann, Müllenbach (bei Bayern), München, Regensburg, Speyer, Stuttgart, Tübingen, Neu-Ulm, and Weimar. Dresden, Göttingen, and Leipzig have their own collections and so do individuals with interest in human remains. For example, the widow of Felix Luschan sold his collection of human remains or part of the collection to the American Natural History Museum (AMNH) in Washington. Felix Luschan is on record for asking one of his correspondents to bring him the masculine organ of one of those killed in the genocide of the Herero.
Most European States would have their own collections of African human remains which they obtained directly from their colonial adventures or from other States that had an excess. All colonial powers and other European States would have African human remains but they do not like to talk about this nor would they want us to know that some Europeans were directly involved in head- hunting, as reported to have been the case of the Portuguese in East Timor from where they sent 25 scalps to Coimbra University. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and other European States could provide information on their collections. Given the countless genocides/massacres committed by Europeans in Africa, there must be some thousands of African remains in European museums and institutions. Most colonial powers committed massacres/genocides in their attempts to impose their will on Africans:
- Atrocities in the Belgian Congo Free State of King Leopold II are too painful and too many to enumerate. Belgians still have the skull of Chief Lusinga who refused to accept Belgian domination and was decapitated on 4 December 1884 by Emile Storm, Belgian commander. His skull is still in Belgium in a collection of 289 skulls,12 foetus and 8 skeletons and other remains transferred in 1964 to the Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelle de Belgique.
- The British have Chuka Massacre, Hola Massacre in attempting to suppress Kenya nationalism during the so-called Mau Mau wars 1952-1960 where 11,000 were killed.
- The French have the Thiaroye massacre in Senegal in which French troops shot West African troops (Tirailleurs)from 30 November to 1 December 1944 who had revolted on revocation of pay and conditions. The French killed 300 African soldiers. The French committed massacres around Sétif and Guelma, Algeria, 1945 killing 6000 t0 20,000 civilians.
Who can forget the case of Sarah Baartman the South African lady whose ample anatomical attributes seem to have excited European males (Britain and France)that they used her for their freak shows and when she died in 1815 her body was dissected and her remains displayed in Paris finally at the Musée de l’Homme. Baartman’s remains were released and returned to South African in 2002 only after the intervention of the great Nelson Mandela but not without resistance by the European holders.
- Germans have Maji Maji genocide and the genocide of the Herero and Nama. Germans killed in the Maji Maji war,1905-1907, 250,000-300,000 Africans. The genocide of the Herero and Nama resulted in 65,000 of 80,000 Herero and at least 10,000 of 20,000 Nama being killed between 1904 and 1908 by the German colonialist in South West Africa, now Namibia.
- Italians have their Addis-Ababa massacre when from 19 February to 21 February 1937 they killed 30.000 Ethiopians.
- The Portuguese have their Wiriyamu massacre of 300 innocent civilians killed in Mozambique on 16 December 1972.( See Mustafah Dhada, The Portuguese Massacre of Wiriyamu in Colonial Mozambique,1964-2013. Bloomsbury Academic,2016).
French President Macron is surely right in characterizing colonialism as crime against humanity. Hopefully, he will expedite the return of African human remains in order to contribute to the new relational ethics between Europe and Africa as envisaged in Sarr-Savoy report on restitution.
Europeans should reveal once and for all the African human remains they have in their natural sciences museums and ethnology museums. But will they do so if African governments do not put any pressure on them?
The following citation from experts will clarify the extent of Western practice of stealing/holding of African human remains:’ Portugal presents an interesting case study where both nationalism and imperialism played important roles in the nineteenth-century origins of studies of a distinctive school of study of archaeological and other skeletal remains. Through an examination of the collections extant in Portuguese institutions, the chapter looks at the motivations behind the collecting process. Portuguese scholars were part of a wider European and international confraternity who traded in crania. In the forging of national identity, these crania were used to explore ancient migrations and to ‘demonstrate’ that the historical presence of Moors and African slaves had not diluted the essentially European nature of the Portuguese population. In common physical anthropology was used as a tool in Portuguese colonialism and the development of narratives of race, difference and subordination that legitimised and sustained these enterprises. The latter process was facilitated partly by ensuring that colonial subjects internalised the world view of the coloniser including the subordinate status of the colonised and their bodies(Fanon1967). In a poignant illustration, Santos presents the story of the Manjak people from Guinea-Bissau, whose canines had been sharpened earlier in their lives, having these teeth pulled to avoid the embarrassment of being considered ‘uncivilised’ For local cultural reasons, Portugal remains unique in its holding large collections of modern remains of known biography. These collections are being made available for study, and their potential contribution, particularly, in terms of methodological research, is very significant. Similarly, collections of colonial origins are now being used to further methodological approaches to the study of ancestry in forensic anthropology’’
Archaeological Human Remains: Legacies of Imperialism, Communism and Colonialism, edited by Barra O'Donnabhain, María Cecilia Lozada, Chapter 8.
Springer International Publishing AG,2018.
27 February,1906, Wangoni captured by the Germans who hanged their leaders.
Contribution to the conference „Beyond Collecting – Museums Ethics in the 21rst Century“ at the National Museum of the United Republic of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, March 5/6, 2020. Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, Berlin Postkolonial e.V.
Walezeni mababu zetu mahali pema peponi - let our ancestors rest in peace!
Many German tourists who visit Tanzania are surprised by the numerous well-preserved graves of German colonialists in the country. Although many of them acted as brutal colonial masters and some even committed serious war crimes, most of their graves are tended to and cherished.
In stark contrast to this is the way our Tanzanian ancestors are treated in Germany. Many people here in Tanzania do not even know that 100 years ago their heads and skeletons were taken in large numbers to the German Empire for racist research. Since then, they have been lying there packed in cardboard boxes on cellar shelves and are still partly misused for research purposes today.
Only a few days ago, the large state-run Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage (SPK) was the first German institution to officially announce how many bones of our ancestors were shipped from the former colony "German East Africa" to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. The foundation has declared itself willing to return them. You will understand how happy we are about this when you learn that we have demanded this again and again for almost ten years.
You will also understand how frustrated we are that it has taken so long. After all, our first major initiative to repatriate human bones from "German East Africa" even goes back to the centenary of the Maji-Maji War in 2005. Together with other NGOs in Germany, we publicly called on the German government to return our Tanzanian ancestors. In spite of all promises, almost nothing has happened since then: by now not a single head has returned to Tanzania!
So now the world learns officially that the SPK has hundreds of East African ancestors in its depots. 264 heads and skeletons come from Tanzania. From Rwanda even more then 900 were sent to Germany. Hundreds more, we have had to find out for ourselves, lie in the numerous other German collections in Leipzig, Dresden, Göttingen, Freiburg and Cologne. Even museums in France and in the USA possess bones, heads and other body parts of our dear and venerated ancestors.
Unfortunately, we still do not know exactly where the bones of the SPK come from, because the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage consistently refuses to hand over the results of its research to us. It is still not prepared to show us the list of our ancestors whose bones were abducted. Thus, we only know from the government's response to an opposition inquiry in the German parliament that the human remains of no less than 17 Tanzanian communities can be found in the Berlin depots alone.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany for inviting us to this conference, which enables us to officially and personally inform the communities concerned. I would like to mention all communities clearly and explicitly by name. They are the Wabondei, Wachagga, Wadigo, Wahehe, Wamassai, Wamwera, Wandonde, Wangindo, Wapare, Wasandawi, Wasambaa, Waswahili, Wanyaturu, Watutsi, Watwa, Wagogo and the Wakinga.
We would like to ask all Tanzanians present here today to inform the representatives of these communities about the whereabouts of their ancestors. Their abducted bones are neither Prussian nor German cultural heritage! We would like to ask all participants of this conference to tell the descendants that their ancestors are waiting in Berlin to be brought back and buried with as much dignity as the German colonizers were buried in this country.
In order to make progress along the way, we ask the German government and its Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage:
- to share with us the results of its completed project on provenance research
- to publish the list for the collection of the remains of our ancestors in the internet
- to take over all costs for the return of our dear ancestors to Tanzania to deliver an official apology to the descendants of the abducted ancestors
From the governments of Germany’s federal states and communities and its museums and universities we expect:
- information to Berlin Postkolonial as well as to the Tanzanian government, should there be human bones from Tanzania in their collections
- an immediate stop to the abuse of Tanzanian human remains from the colonial period for research and teaching
- the prompt final clarification of the provenance of the human remains in cooperation with experts from Tanzania or from Germany's Black Community
- the return of all human remains from Tanzania to our communities
- the taking over of all costs for the return of our ancestors to Tanzania
- an official apology to the descendants of our deported ancestors
Recently, we have often heard from Germans that they would not bear any guilt for the crimes of their ancestors more than 100 years ago. We can fully agree with that. But this is not about personal guilt or innocence. It is about the willingness and ability of the Federal Republic of Germany, the legal successor of the German Reich and its citizens to take over historical responsibility. It is above all about ending persistent colonial injustice and returning our ancestors, who were stolen by their ancestors, so that they can finally rest in peace.
Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, Berlin Postkolonial e.V.