“colonial” human remains cause scandal

An extensive survey of New York Times evokes the 18,000 skulls and bones in the possession of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, while a Belgian auction house withdrew three African skulls from sale on November 30, after the publication of an article in Paris-Match Belgium.

« A museum in Paris holds 18,000 skulls. He is reluctant to say who they belong to “. It is under this title that an in-depth investigation of the New York Times on the colonial collections of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. The article of the American daily denounces a French omerta on a quantity of skulls of Africans, Australians and American Indians who rest in the basement, place du Trocadéro.

He was greeted by a cathedral silence. What Dorcy Rugamba, a Rwandan playwright living in Brussels, author of a play entitled ” The Supreme Leftovers » presented in May in Dakar, explained by « the persistence of a real taboo: the link between colonialism and Nazism, however highlighted by Hannah Arendt and Aimé Césaire, which undermines the French national novel ».

Three skulls for sale in Brussels

Coincidence: the very day of the publication of the investigation of the New York Times, the Drouot auction house, via the Vanderkindere auction house in Brussels, has put three skulls, also colonial, on the market. Michel Bouffioux, a journalist from Paris-Match Belgium who has been investigating since 2018 on colonial-era human remains, published November 29 an article which had an immediate impact.

The next day, the three heads offered at prices ranging from 750 to 1,000 euros were withdrawn. As well as the description which presented them, in these terms: Lot of three human skulls: a cannibalistic Bangala skull with pointed incisors, a skull of the Arab chief Muine Mohara killed by sergeant Cassart in Augoï on January 9, 1893 and decorated with a frontal jewel, a fragment of skull collected (… ) in the province of Mongala by Doctor Louis Laurent on May 5, 1894. (…) Provenance: former collection of Doctor Louis Laurent in Namur. ” Instead of, a word of apology was published on the website of the auction house, which decided to buy back the skulls to return them to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – without specifying what would happen to the ” arab chief ».

A “legal” sale according to the auctioneer

Are these regrets sincere? Faced with the Belgian collective Mémoire coloniale, which will file a complaint for “ concealment of corpses “, the auctioneer of Vanderkindere, Serge Hutry, questioned by RFI, defends himself of his right. ” In Belgium, there is no legislationhe says. We are not wrong on this aspect. We sell 7 500 batches per year for thirty years, and have never had this problem. After a while, we could no longer sell ivory, and we remained within the legality. My feeling is that for years skulls have been sold in Paris, London or Brussels in the form of vanities. They’re human skulls transformed with sparkles, and we didn’t care more than that. Here, the reaction of the DRC is legal, correct, that they manage with the Belgian ministry. We will return these skulls ».

Asked by the RTBFYves-Bernard Debie, lawyer for the Chamber of Antiquaries, recalls that “ all European medieval art is made of relics, and it’s not illegal. Nevertheless, the human remains must fall within the framework of cultural property, which is debatable here. ».

In the Belgian press, Michel Bouffioux is one of the few, if not the only one, to grasp the subject. ” My first investigation in 2018 on the history of the Lusinga skull led me to take an interest in the collections of the Museum of Natural Sciences and the Free University of Brussels, testifies the journalist. It took a lot of banging on the nail for it to become a topic. My articles were initially greeted with amazement and disbelief, because the idea of ​​having this type of collection in oblivion is very disturbing. Only scientists knew about them, and they only saw them as collector’s items, keeping a distance, knowing that they were people killed in the circumstances of colonial hyper-violence. My work has served to raise the question of ethics on the conservation of human remains in Belgium and their non-repatriation. ».

Bones and skulls in Belgium and the Netherlands

The outcry caused by the Brussels sale seems to contradict on one point the investigation of the New York Times, which suggests that the situation is better elsewhere in Europe than in France. In Belgium, at least 300 African heads are still in the hands of public and private institutions. The skull of roi Flattering, beheaded by the Belgian general Emile Storms in 1884 in the Belgian Congo, then brought back as a hunting trophy, still rests in rue Vautier, in the Museum of Natural Sciences. A group of Congolese academics asks – in vain – for his return to offer him a funeral. the project Human Remains Origins Multidisciplinary Evaluation (HOME) bringing together scientists from seven museums and universities, including the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, was launched at the end of 2019 with federal funding, to look into the question. A report with recommendations is expected by mid-December.

For their part, the Netherlands certainly returned in 2009 the severed head and preserved in formaldehyde of a Ghanaian king, Badu Bonsu II, beheaded in 1838 by colonists. A writer, Arthur Japin, had discovered the relic by chance in the anatomy collections of the Leiden medical school, and then alerted the Ghanaian embassy.

Other remains nonetheless remain on the soil of this former colonial power, including 40,000 bones brought from Indonesia at the end of the 19th century by the Dutch anatomist and doctor Eugène Dubois. The skull cap of a Javanese of the prehistoric era, witness to the “missing link” in the evolution from ape to man, is also becoming a subject of controversy.

It is presented as the highlight of the show at the Naturalis Museum in Leiden, in a room dedicated to Eugène Dubois. However, Indonesia has been asking for its return since last July, along with the entire Eugène Dubois collection and seven other art and natural science collections. The authorities in The Hague have not reacted for the moment. A spokeswoman for the Naturalis museum has drawn the wrath of Jakarta, who accused her of ” misplaced superiority because she questioned Indonesia’s conservation capabilities.

Refunds in Great Britain and Germany

In Great Britain, an agreement was reached on November 3, after eight years of talks, between Zimbabwe and the Natural History Museum in London as well as the University of Cambridge. The two institutions are ready to cooperate to return human remains, including three skulls, which Zimbabwe suspects belong to leaders of the first Chimurenga, an 1890s revolt against English settlers.

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford began returning some of the 2,000 human remains it holds in 2017, including seven tattooed and mummified Maori heads returned to New Zealand. The accounts are far from settled, however, since the British Museum keeps 6,000 human remains from the vast British colonial empire, the Duckworth Laboratory has 18,000 and the Natural History Museum more than 25,000.

In Germany, breaches seem to have been opened more easily. have been returned 20 skulls to Namibia, in 2011, then other remains in 2018, taken from southern Africa by the settlers after the massacre of the Hereros and the Namas. Two peoples whose genocides Berlin recognized in 2004, and for whom apologies were made in 2021.

A thousand other skulls brought back from the former German colonies have been the subject of an international study since 2017 to determine their precise origin. The Belgian daily The Free Belgium explain that ” these human remains had been brought mainly from Rwanda, but also from Tanzania and Burundi, in the former German Empire (1871-1918), by the anthropologist Felix von Luschan for the purpose of ‘scientific studies’ “. The lines move, obviously, but not everywhere at the same speed.

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