Britain has revealed that it is negotiating with Zimbabwe over the repatriation of remains thought to belong to fighters from the African country’s struggle against its colonisers, currently held in the Natural History Museum in London.
Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe said in a speech at the weekend that British settlers had in the late 1800s taken the skulls of several celebrated resistance fighters in what is known locally as the “First Chimurenga” as “war trophies”, and called for their return.
“We are told that skulls of our people, our leaders, are being displayed in a British museum and they are inviting us to repatriate them. We will repatriate them, but with bitterness, questioning the rationale behind decapitating them,” Mr Mugabe told thousands of people at the annual national holiday honouring fighters who died in the war to end white minority rule.
“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.
“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.”
On Thursday night, the Foreign Office confirmed that “remains of Zimbabwean origin” were in London and it was waiting for Zimbabwe to send technical experts to liaise with museum staff.
“The issue of the potential repatriation of Zimbabwean human remains was first discussed by British and Zimbabwean Authorities in December 2014,” it said in a statement.
“The UK has since invited Zimbabwe to appoint technical experts to meet their museum counterparts in London, in order to discuss some remains of Zimbabwean origin.
“It is not yet clear whether these remains are related to the events, places or people referred to in the president’s speech this week. We await the appointment of the required Zimbabwean experts in order to take this forward. This story highlights the importance of following due process when handling sensitive museum collections.”
A spokesman for the Natural History Museum confirmed that it was “considering a request”.
“The Natural History Museum has a policy of considering requests for return of human remains to their places of origin, under the provisions of Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act 2004,” he said.
“The museum actively engages in discussions with governments and communities with an interest in or who wish to make a claim for return of remains.”
It is understood that once Zimbabwe raised the issue of the missing skulls, it took time to identify their location. The Natural History Museum has around 20,000 items in its human remains section.
Zimbabwe attained its independence from Britain in 1980.
Mr Mugabe said his government would consult with traditional leaders about how to bury the remains at the country’s “sacred” shrines.
The state-run Sunday Mail newspaper reported in July that the skulls included those of Mashayamombe Chinengundu of Mhondoro and Chief Makoni Chingaira of Rusape, who were beheaded by British invasion forces at the height of Zimbabwe’s first war of resistance against white settlers in the 1890s. The war broke out in Zimbabwe between the indigenous Shona and Ndebele communities and the white British settlers from 1896 to 1897.
Godfrey Mahachi, executive director of National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, said the heads’ repatriation was already being discussed. “Of course, Britain has confirmed that they are holding our human remains that got into the British museums sometime soon after the First Chimurenga,” he told state-run daily newspaper The Herald.
“The process that is now taking place is about how we are going to handle the repatriation. This is why there is an invitation for Zimbabwe to constitute a team to discuss with British authorities.”
Robert Barrett, one of Zimbabwe’s leading historians and archeologists, said there was no proof that any skulls of Zimbabwe’s early liberation fighters landed up in the UK after they were executed during the first rebellion against British rule in 1896.
He said that Professor Terence Ranger, a British academic and leading Zimbabwe expert who died in January, had discounted the theory and “talk” that the head or remains of one of the early freedom fighters, Chief Makoni, was sent to the UK after he was shot by firing squad during the rebellion.
“Terence Ranger, who strongly supported the liberation of Rhodesia, wrote a paper on this and denied that Chief Makoni’s head had been sent to the UK. Chief Makoni was arrested and had a brief military trial and was then executed by firing squad. We don’t know where he or others from the rebellion were buried,” Mr Barrett said.
Another historian disclosed that Zimbabwe had a few foreign heads of its own within its Museum of Natural Sciences in Harare.
“Zimbabwe has a couple of Aboriginal skulls and a Bushman head and these, in many people’s belief, should be sent back to Australia and Botswana.”
He said museums in many parts of the world exchanged skulls during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.