I still don’t understand how a people can hold onto another people’s ancestors’ skulls, refuse to return it, and talk of partnership, friendship, among the people. Isn’t it ludicrous? Many of our ancestors’ skulls are still in museums in Europe, and to this date, Europeans refuse to return them, yet they talk of partnership. The information below shows all the obstacles met to find King Mkwawa’s skull, a skull which was included in the Treaty of Versailles, and return it, … As you read about all the hurdles, you wonder how hard it will be for the regular commoners. The excerpts below are from the article written by Dr. J. Desplat at the National Archives. For the full article, please go to the The National Archives, and see some of the correspondence quoted here, as well as the ones mentioning that the skull was said to have magical powers..
As a reminder, King Mkwawa’s skull’s return (King Mkwawa and the First German Colonial Forces’ Defeat in Africa) was stipulated in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles:
“ARTICLE 246. Within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, … Germany will hand over to His Britannic Majesty’s Government the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa which was removed from the Protectorate of German East Africa and taken to Germany.”
King Mkwawa was the king of the Uhehe tribe in German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania), and was opposed to German rule. In 1895, he declared that ‘rather than submit to German rule he would fight them to the utmost limit, and rather than surrender he would die by his own gun’.
In 1898, a bounty was placed on his head, which led to a manhunt. On 19 July, Sergeant Major Merkl and his party closed in on Mkwawa. Merkl reported that they heard a shot and hurried towards the camp, where they found ‘two natives lying down by the camp fire’. One of them was identified as Mkwawa himself. Merkl wrote: ‘I thought they were asleep, halted at about thirty yards and then fired. The bodies did not move. On reaching the spot, we found both men dead and cold (…). I ordered my askari to cut off Mkwawa’s head to take along to camp.’ (CO 822/770) …
[It took almost 40 years after the Treaty of Versailles to find the skull] … The [British] government of Tanganyika wasn’t too bothered. ‘This government does not now attach much importance to the question of Mkwawa’s skull’, they wrote, … The head mentioned was highly unlikely to be the right one as, by all accounts, it had been skeletonised rather than embalmed, but the German Foreign Ministry was asked to investigate again… The British embassy in Berlin commented: ‘it is of course possible that the German Government have made no very serious effort either to find out what truth there is in the story or to trace the skull.’ (CO 691/124/2)
… In January 1953, however, the German Foreign Ministry suddenly announced the skull might be among the large collection of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Bremen. As several skulls seemed to fit the description, they asked whether the skull had any marks by which it could be identified.
Twining [the Governor of Tanganyika, Sir Edward Twining] reported from Tanganyika that ‘nobody could be found still alive who remembered the Sultan’ (and if people had still been alive, they might have found it difficult to identify Mkwawa by simply looking at his skull anyway!) but Mkwawa’s cephalic index could be compared to that of his grandson Chief Adam Sapi, an apparently unusual 71%.
In June, Twining himself travelled to Bremen to identify the skull. Accompanied by the consul and the vice-consul, he went to the Museum.
‘They went to a storeroom where there was a large cupboard full of skulls, and it was arranged for those which had originated in German East Africa to be put together on a table and for their cephalic indexes to be measured. There were two in the 71 group which were selected, and one of these had a hole where a bullet had entered towards the back of the head and come out in front.’ (CO 822/566)
Twining had this skull examined by a German police surgeon who confirmed the hole was consistent with a 25mm rifle of the typed used by German troops in East Africa. Besides, Twining explained, ‘the skull was bleached, which probably happened when they boiled the meat off it’ – someone at the Colonial Office noted in the margin: ‘Ugh!’
[On the return trip], Twining’s irritation might actually have been due to the skull itself which ‘continued to behave very badly’[it was reportedly said to have magical powers]. He reported: ‘We had a series of mishaps which cannot otherwise be accounted for. Our poor old Bandmaster, Gulab Singh, died on the train. My A.D.C. collected a sinus and had to go to hospital. The head boy had a soda water bottle burst in his face, and the cook was struck in the face by a flying saucer. We all got hay fever and we all got very irritable!’ (CO 822/770)