Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, has demanded that London’s Natural History Museum returns the skulls of freedom fighters who were killed by British colonisers.
British officials acknowledged that discussion about the repatriation of Zimbabwean human remains began last year but did not say whether a final decision had been made.
Mugabe said the missing skulls were those of leaders of “the first chimurenga”, an uprising against white settlers in the late 19th century, that included the spirit mediums Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi, who were hanged from a tree in 1898.
“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 this week, during a Heroes Day commemoration in Harare. “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.”
Once the remains were repatriated, the 91-year-old president added, the government would consult with traditional leaders about how to bury them at sacred shrines across the country.
Zimbabwe’s state-controlled Herald newspaper reported on Thursday that the heads would be sent back to the country as soon as the logistical issues had been resolved.
But the British embassy in Harare was more cautious. It said: “The issue of the potential repatriation of Zimbabwean human remains was first discussed by British and Zimbabwean authorities in December 2014. 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.”
Repatriation of human remains is a fraught legacy of European colonialism in Africa. In 2011, Germany returned 20 skulls to Namibia that had once been used for racial experiments. The plane carrying the skulls back was greeted by warriors on horseback who shouted war cries. But hundreds more skulls remain in Germany.
A year later, the remains of a Khoisan couple, Klaas and Trooi Pienaar, were repatriated to South Africa from Austria. The Pienaars’ bodies were illegally exhumed and shipped to Austria in 1909, where they became part of racial “research” by the Austrian scientist Rudolf Poch.
The Herald said it had tracked down the great-grandson of Chitekedza Chishawira, who was killed by the British during the first chimurenga in 1897. 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.”
The Natural History Museum did not give details of how the remains were acquired or whether they had been on public display. A spokesperson said: “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. 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.”