The remains of thousands of Africans are held in Western museums. Onyekachi Wambu outlines the issues involved in returning them to their countries and communities of origin
The most visceral and emotional of the restitution issues and perhaps the most successful to date, are those that involve African human remains – skeletons, skulls, and other body parts.
These human remains ended up in European collections through a number of encounters involving warfare, Egyptian tomb raids, and are grisly reminders of ‘scientific’ racism and the creation of human zoos. This last such humiliating spectacle took place as recently as 1958, when people from Congo were put on display for a World Fair event in Brussels, Belgium.
From the display of mummified pharaohs, to others preserved in boxes in basements, museums, universities and other cultural institutions, Western authorities find it increasingly difficult to justify these collections.
As a graphic and grim reminder of eras when Europeans owned and controlled African resources and people, the movement to return human remains and icons has gathered steam.
The ‘Hottentot Venus’
The most famous of the returned icons are those of the South African woman, Sarah Baartman, whose brain, genitals, and skeleton were preserved in a back room at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.
Baartman was taken to Europe as an anthropological curiosity in the early 19th century, and displayed under the name of the ‘Hottentot Venus’, for amusement and to satisfy freakish curiosity about Black bodies.
She died in 1815 at the age of 27, but was denied a burial. She was dissected by Georges Cuvier, acknowledged as the founder of modern palaeontology, who placed her genitalia and brains on display in the Musée de l’Homme, where they remained until 1976, despite widespread objections from Africans in Paris.
Nelson Mandela and the South African government would join these voices after the liberation of South Africa in 1994. Her remains were eventually repatriated to South Africa and buried with dignity in 2002, 192 years after Baartman had left for Europe.
Germany returns Namibian skulls
Meanwhile, in 2018, Germany returned the skulls of Namibian people killed during the German colonial genocide more than 100 years ago. These skulls were used for research by ‘racial anthropologists’.
Skulls from Germany’s other African colonies, including modern-day Cameroon, Tanzania, Rwanda and Togo, were also used in the discredited ‘research’, and put together by determined collectors.
Tari Ngangura, an African commentator who has written about these collections, quotes Christian Kopp, project coordinator for the activist group Berlin Postkolonial about two of these collectors: “In Berlin there were two prominent scientific collectors, Rudolf Virchow and Felix von Luschan. Together they had thousands of human remains. When Virchow died and Luschan took over his collection, he claimed to have the biggest anthropological collection in the world comprising of [the] remains of about 10,000 to 15,000 individuals.
“Today there are still up to 8,000 bones in Berlin and maybe some few thousands in other German collections. Luschan’s private collection, with some 4,000 to 5,000 skulls and skeletons, was sold after his death to the American Natural History Museum (AMNH) where, we believe, it is still used for research.”
For every Baartman and German skull that returns, thousands of others remain in various boxes in basements. A spokesperson for the Natural History Museum in the UK told the BBC: “The Natural History Museum cares for 20,000 human remains in its collection. They are referred to by scientists both at the museum and internationally for research.”
Zimbabwe demands return of warriors’ remains
Not all of these are African – but some of the African remains have attracted well-directed campaigns. The most prominent of these has involved the long-running call to return to Zimbabwe the skulls of spiritual leader Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana and the other iconic heroes of the First Chimurenga (war) between 1896-7 against Cecil Rhodes’ encroaching British South African Company. Nehanda and the other heroes were captured and hanged, and their skulls taken to London.
In 2015, Zimbabwe’s then President Mugabe added his voice for their return: “The First Chimurenga leaders, whose heads were decapitated by the colonial occupying force, were then dispatched to England, to signify British victory over, and subjugation of, the local population,” Mugabe said, adding: “Surely, keeping decapitated heads as war trophies, in this day and age, in a national history museum, must rank among the highest forms of racist moral decadence, sadism and human insensitivity.”
The Zimbabwean Herald tracked down the great-grandson of Chitekedza Chishawira, one of the heroes killed alongside Nehenda. Tichadii Ziwengwa Chishawira told the paper: “It is painful for us. My great-grandfather died after he was tied to the leg of a horse. The Whites accused him of rebellion after he resisted and fought White supremacy. The decapitation of our forefather is an indictment of how insensitive imperialists were.”
Chief Mashayamombe, whose great-grandfather Mashayamombe was also killed, was quoted as saying that the displaying of human skulls in museums was taboo in African culture and showed the brutality of the settlers. “That shows disrespect for our culture,” he told the Herald. “That is why I have written a letter to the government, even to Her Majesty the Queen, saying I want the skull of my leader. So, we welcome the development being undertaken to return them. But we are not happy with the attitude of the imperialists. Even the killing itself was brutal.”
Campaign on the brink of success
Institutions such as the Natural History Museum are currently governed by the Human Tissue Act 2004, which empowers them to actively consider requests to change the custody of human body parts that are less than one thousand years old (this still excludes perhaps the most famous forms of human remains taken from Africa in UK collections – Egyptian mummified bodies).
Within the context of the Human Tissue Act, the campaign to return the skulls of Nehenda and the other Chimurenga heroes appears on the brink of success, although Covid-19 has delayed steps to return them.
With the current relaxation of the lockdown, relatives of the national heroes are expected to travel to the Natural History Museum in London to resolve outstanding issues on the return of their skulls and other war trophies, ahead of dignified burials in Zimbabwe.
Most institutions in the UK engage actively in the return of human remains, but stress that there are issues of where, and to whom, they are returned. In some cases, it may not be appropriate, they stress, to return human remains to national collections in their countries of origin, but rather, to the communities for whom the human remains are their ancestors.
Good practice in this area involves working closely with national and local institutions and with local communities in the country of origin to agree the most appropriate resting place for the returned remains.
About the Return of African Icons 2020 special report
This article forms part of the Return of African Icons 2020 special report in the August/September 2020 edition of New African magazine.
The colonial period led to the wholesale plundering of African icons, many of which still languish in Western museums and other heritage sites. It is time they were brought back home to help close another painful chapter. This report has been compiled in collaboration with the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), which has been one of the leading campaigners for the return of African icons and restitution for past wrongs. It lays out the current state of play and the growing momentum for this noble cause.
Click to view more articles from the Return of the Icons 2020 special report.