More on King Mkwawa and The Return of His Skull to Tanzania

King Mkwawa

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’.

Sir Edward Twining returning King Mkwawa’s skull

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 TanganyikaSir 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.

Skull on display at the Mkwawa Memorial 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)

King Mkwawa: the Trailer

King Mkwawa

Here is the trailer to the movie celebrating the life of King Mkwawa, the Hehe leader who inflicted the German Schutztruppe their first defeat on African soil. I salute King Mkwawa and the Hehe people who fought for their freedom and resisted the Germans for over 7 years. 17th August 1891 marks the first defeat of Germans colonial forces, and also the victory of King Mkwawa and the Hehe people. A lot can be said about a king whose people loved him dearly to the point that no one within his ranks were willing to betray him for money. The fact that the return of his skull was part of the Treaty of Versailles also denotes his great aura. This, however, makes us wonder how many more of our treasures, statues, and even skulls of our great warriors and kings may still be exposed or hidden in Western museums and galleries. We demand their return; these belonged to our ancestors, thus they belong to us and are a part of identity!  Enjoy!

King Mkwawa and the First German Colonial Forces’ Defeat in Africa

King Mkwawa

Have you ever heard about the German Schutztruppe‘s first stinging defeat in Africa? Have you ever heard about the African Chief whose skull was part of the Treaty of Versailles’ negotiation? Have you ever heard of the Hehe Rebellion of 1891 and the German defeat at the hand of the fierce Hehe King Mkwawa in Lugalo?

King Mkwavinyika Munyigumba Mwamuyinga (known as Mkwawa) was born in Luhota in Iringa in the south of modern-day Tanzania, and was the son of Chief Munyigumba, who died in 1879. He was the leader of the Hehe people in German East Africa (now mostly the mainland part of Tanzania) who opposed the German colonization. The name “Mkwawa” is derived from Mukwava, itself a shortened form of Mukwavinyika, meaning “conqueror of many lands“.

Tanzania_Hehe warrior
A Hehe warrior

Mkwawa was the chief of the Uhehe who won fame by defeating Germans at Lugalo on August 17th 1891 and maintaining the resistance for seven years. August 17th 1891 marks the first defeat of the German colonial troops or ‘Schutztruppe’ in Africa, at Africans’ hands. The devotion of the Hehe people to their King was unconditional to the point that when the German governor offered 5,000 rupees for his capture in 1898, no Hehe accepted it!

Emil von Zelewski

After the Germans had managed to colonize the coastal area of Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania), they started to move further inland. At that time the Hehe were also expanding towards the coast. Both sides tried some diplomacy to avoid war. However, all hopes were dashed, so the Germans decided the best way was to fight against Chief Mkwawa. In July 1891, the German commissioner, Emil von Zelewski, led a battalion of soldiers (320 askaris with officers and porters) to suppress the Hehe. On 17 August, they were attacked by Mkwawa’s 3,000-strong army at Lugalo, who, despite only being equipped with spears and a few guns, quickly overpowered the German force and killed Zelewski.

On 28 October 1894, the Germans, under the new commissioner Colonel Freiherr Friedrich von Schele, attacked Mkwawa’s fortress at Kalenga. Although they took the fort, Mkwawa managed to escape. Subsequently, Mkwawa conducted a campaign of guerrilla warfare, harassing the Germans until 1898 when, on 19 July, he was surrounded and he shot himself to avoid capture.

Tanzania_Mkwawa skull return
Sir Edward Twining returning King Mkwawa’s skull in 1954

After his death, German soldiers removed Mkwawa’s head. The skull was sent to Berlin and ended up in the Übersee-Museum Bremen. In 1918 the then British Administrator of German East Africa H.A. Byatt proposed to his government that it should demand a return of the skull to Tanganyika in order to reward the Wahehe for their cooperation with the British during the war and in order to have a symbol assuring the locals of the definitive end of German power. The skull’s return 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.

The Germans disputed the removal of the said skull from East Africa and the British government took the position that the whereabouts could not be traced. However, after World War II, the Governor of Tanganyika, Sir Edward Twining, took up the issue again. After inquiries he was directed to the Bremen Museum which he visited himself in 1953. The Museum had a collection of 2000 skulls, 84 of which originated from the former German East Africa . He short-listed the ones which showed measurements similar to surviving relatives of Chief Mkwawa; from this selection he picked the only skull with a bullet-hole as the skull of chief Mkwawa.

Tanzania_Mkwawa skull
King Mkwawa’s skull in exposition at the Mkwawa Memorial Museum in Kalenga

The skull was finally returned on 9 July 1954, and now resides at the Mkwawa Memorial Museum in Kalenga, near the town of Iringa. Many believe that it is not King Mkwawa’ skull.

Here I salute King Mkwawa and the Hehe people who fought for their freedom and resisted for over 7 years. The defeat of the German colonial forces on 17th August 1891 in Lugalo, the destruction of the Hehe fort at Kalenga on the 30th of October 1894 and the death of Chief Mkwawa on the 19th of June 1898 were key events in the German colonization in East Africa. To learn more about this page of history, check out the website by King Mkwawa’s great-grandsonThe colonial wars of imperial Germany , and this article on King Mkwawa’s skull.