Please return our stolen heritage
Ranga Mataire Writing Back
A continental call for former European colonial powers to return cultural artefacts including heads of African struggle heroes stolen during conquests is gathering pace.
While other European powers have obliged the call to return the loot, others are arguing that if returned the artefacts won’t be taken good care of.
They also say that they no longer have any recollection of the original owners of the artefacts. This is so condescending and an insult to all African countries whose cultural products were stolen.
It is even more dastardly in the case of Zimbabwe, which for years has been calling for the return of First Chimurenga heroes; Mbuya Nehanda, Chief Chingaira Makoni, Chinengundu, Mashayamombe, Mapondera, Mashonganyika, Chitekedza Chiwashira whose heads were decapitated by colonial occupying forces, then dispatched to England, to signify British victory over, and subjugation of the local population.
The idea that Europe and Britain in particular, are dilly-dallying in sending the skulls speaks volumes about their self-arrogated advanced civilisations and moral aptitude.
If indeed Europe is the epitome of moral aptitude and advanced civilisation, why would they resist returning skulls of human beings being kept in their Natural History Museums?
This surely ranks as the highest form of moral decadence. If there are any African beings who ever doubted the wickedness of colonial European powers during slavery and colonialism, then this resistance to return the loot puts such doubts into shreds.
In this day and age, surely keeping decapitated heads as war trophies is the highest form of racist moral decadence, sadism and insensitivity.
Museums are certainly devices that helped in shaping colonialism and stories of conquests and legitimised a litany of dehumanising acts undertaken by invading colonial forces.
In most African societies the spirit of the deceased must be brought home through a ceremony a few months after burial.
The spirit will remain restless until such a ceremony is held. This is probably what is happening to Zimbabwe’s early struggle heroes like Mbuya Nehanda and others who were shipped to some alien cold dreary places in England where they remain tormented even in death.
Besides the need to settle the tormented spirits, it remains a good thing for Britain to return the skulls as a sign of contrition concerning many evils undertaken during colonial conquests in the name of the Queen.
As long as the skulls remain in Britain, the account of our historical trajectory will remain crooked in favour of the victor.
The Herald recently 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.”
A precedent for the return of the skulls has already been set by Germany, which in 2011 returned 20 skulls to the Namibian embassy in Berlin that had once been used for racial experiments.
A German paper, Der Spiegel claims that: “At the time, they viewed the skulls not as human remains, but as material with which to investigate and classify race.”
While we acknowledge on-going discussions between Zimbabwe and Britain authorities over the return of the skulls and other stolen artefacts, we are concerned by recent comments made by the latter.
A spokesperson for Britain’s Natural History Museum recently said that the institution currently has more than 20 000 human remains in its collection.
“They are referred to by scientists both at the museum and internationally for research. We have a policy of considering formal requests for return of human remains to their places of origin, under the provisions of Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act 2004, and we have been involved in a series of significant repatriations.
“This is a thorough process that involves establishing the correct provenance of remains based on complex historical sources,” the spokesperson recently said.
However, in an interview with Keme Nzerem of Channel 4 News last month, British Culture Secretary Olivier Dowden seemed to pour cold water on the spokesperson’s words.
Commenting on the request to return Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes, Dowden said: “Well I think the problem with this is if we go back to things that happened in the 19th century and judge them by our values of today, it is completely unacceptable. My concern about this is where do you actually draw the line with this?”
Well, our response to the Culture Secretary is that the line can be drawn and that he must not feign ignorance. We know that every product housed in any museum is clearly labelled its origin, date and name.
It is not conjecture that the skulls of Zimbabwe’s 19th revolutionaries were taken to England and are housed in the Natural History Museum.
Yes, colonial powers looted gold, nickel and imaginable natural resources to develop their countries. We are not asking much by simply saying return what you stole. Return our heritage.
We need our ancestors to rest in peace in their country of birth.