- France is leading Europe in accepting colonial mistakes and returning human remains taken from Africa.
- Should restitution of African artifacts also include economic compensation?
- Germany is also agreeing to respond to restitution requests by African countries.
France has once again taken steps to reconcile its patchy colonial ties with Africa, this time championing human remains restitution by returning artifacts, human skulls, bones, and other items of historical value.
These human remains are mostly of great African heroes, who opposed colonial rule in the 17th and 18th centuries. The return of the human remains has been effected by France’s University of Strasbourg. And it is part of an ongoing human remains restitution demanded by several African countries. Most of the latest demands are from Namibia and Tanzania where historic human remains are coming home.
Germany on human remains restitution
In the same vein, Germany is under criticism for failing to take similar actions to confront its colonial past in Africa. Most recently, German Left Party members presented before their parliament the question of Germany’s reappraisal of its colonial crimes in Tanzania.
“With regard to the repatriation of human remains and the return of the cultural property, there are offers of negotiations, and the German government is in favor of a dialogue with the Tanzanian government in this regard,” the lawmakers said.
A recent news article cites an admission by the German colonial government saying its soldiers and scientists; “stole the skeletons of thousands of the dead from cemeteries in order to measure and collect them.”
However, there are deeper questions to be addressed. For example, politician Sevim Dagdelen demanded to know whether military action by German colonial troops in their slaughter of Tanzania’s Maji Maji rebellion should and ought to be described as genocide from today’s perspective.
If the Maji Maji rebellion for freedom was genocide what then? Will Germany be required to compensate Tanzania? Should economic compensation of some sort be demanded from all colonialists to be paid to their victim countries?
150-million-year-old skeleton from Tanzania
There is a historical icon in the atrium of the Museum of Natural History in Germany’s capital Berlin in the form of a 150-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton. This icon is one of the tallest mounted dinosaur skeletons in the world. The skeleton has been earning the European country a pretty sum every year since it was put up on display in 1937. Ironically, this dinosaur skeleton was excavated in Tanzania.
Reports have it that in the 1900s, German paleontologists and their African helpers dug it up in Tanzania’s Lindi Region. “This animal is not originated from Germany. So I think it should be displayed in its country of origin,” Tanzanian historian Philemon Mtoi notes.
Other artifacts of enormous value taken out of Africa in the colonial years continue making huge economic value in museums and collections abroad. One of them is the $400 million Cullinam Diamond from South Africa. Also in the list is the $7.2 million Rosetta Stone from Egypt, and the $3.5 million Tsavo Lions from Kenya. Overall, there are numerous artworks and regalia that were stolen from Africa.
France has been taking the lead in admitting these facts and returning the artworks among other things.
Tanzania, Rwanda skulls in Germany
It is reported that almost 200 skulls will be returned to Tanzania and over 900 to Rwanda. These two make up a big part of German East Africa share in human remains restitution.
According to Historian Jürgen Zimmerer, a professor at the University of Hamburg, other European countries should emulate France. “Decades of colonial amnesia and the refusal to take colonialism, colonial violence, colonial crimes and injustice seriously, German is finally changing its mind,” he says.
The change of mind should go beyond the return of a handful of artifacts. It should include the return of African heroes and freedom fighters. The undertaking should also include excavated Jurassic fossils. What’s more, it should include compensation for all the atrocities suffered.
French council researching origins of human remains
In the most recent development, the University of Strasbourg in France is studying the true origins of human remains collected during the colonial period in Africa.
The University of Strasbourg is located in the Alsace region on the border of France and Germany. Alsace region has changed ownership severally between France and Germany and it therefore shares the colonial history of both countries.
“We are living in a period where we are looking back at our colonial past and attempting to address it,” says Mathieu Schneider, the vice-president of the university and chair of the scientific council.
“Holding on to objects and human remains obtained during colonization might be a problem if we want to have a peaceful dialogue between Europe and Africa. That’s why if we have a request from Africa, we cannot ignore it,” he admits.
“We have to engage in a dialogue to understand what they want, undertake a scientific evaluation of what we actually have and what happened. Only then can a proper restitution take place, as long as it is legally possible to do so,” he said.
The University says it is holding over 110 human artefacts in its collection. This includes skulls and bones collected wrongfully by Germany when it colonised parts of Africa.
Of these, at least 30 are from Tanzania, and as the University admits, they are mostly from the Wachagga tribe.
Massacre of Namibia’s Ovaherero people
Africa has been asking for these remains but to no avail. For example, in January 2020, Tanzania sought restitution of the remains of Wachagga people from Mount Kilimanjaro who massacred during the colonial period.
The German colonizers collected skulls and bones in the name of pseudoscientific to prove the supremacy of the Caucasian race.
Similarly, Namibia’s Ovaherero Genocide Foundation is requesting the return of human remains from the massacre of Ovaherero and Nama people by German troops. The massacre of nearly 70,000 people took place between 1904 and 1907. The ethnic extermination is considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century, as admitted by German in 2021.
“As things stand today, the university cannot simply send the human remains back to Africa. Such restitution from public collections require special approval by the French parliament,” a media report states.
However, all that may be in the past as France moves to reconcile its colonial past. Already, the French Senate has approved a Bill establishing a legal framework for the restitution of human remains. The law targets remains currently held in public collections.