United Kingdom museums agree to return skulls to Zimbabwe

Both Cambridge University and London’s Natural History Museum have stated that they are willing to work with Zimbabwe to help recover human remains that were removed during the colonial era.

The new statements follow discussions between a Zimbabwean delegation and representatives of both institutions.

The skulls of anti-colonial heroes from the late 19th century, which the Zimbabweans think may be in the UK, are being sought for.

However, they haven’t yet been located.

The Zimbabwean government has long held the suspicion that some of the leaders of the First Chimurenga, an insurrection against British authority in the 1890s, had their bodies transferred as trophies to the UK.

The one who became known as Mbuya Nehanda was the most important of them all. She was put to death in Harare, the nation’s current capital, and is regarded as a national hero.

The Natural History Museum did find 11 remains in its archives that “appear to be originating from Zimbabwe,” but there is no link between them and Nehanda. These include remains discovered in mineshafts and archaeological digs that were later given, as well as three skulls that were removed in 1893 and assumed to be from Bulawayo, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe.

The Duckworth Laboratory at Cambridge University has not been as precise, only stating that it had “a small quantity of human remains from Zimbabwe,” though it claimed in a statement to the BBC that none of these have been recognised as belonging to First Chimurenga officials.

Some of the largest such archives in the world can be found in the Natural History Museum, which has 25,000 human remains, and the Duckworth Laboratory, which has 18,000.

These have originated from a number of places, including excavations at ancient locations, but for many of them, time has disguised their precise provenance.

Body parts were occasionally taken from battlegrounds or unearthed from graves during the colonial era, either as souvenirs or for research into a now-discredited scientific discipline.

Phrenology, which looked into the hypothesis that a person’s personality could be predicted by their skull shape, was particularly well-liked in the UK and other areas of Europe in the 19th century. Phrenological associations would gather skulls to aid in the theory’s development, which for some organizations included racial categorization.

Some scientists wanted to prove that differences in skull form among people from various cultures meant that they were intrinsically inferior.

Some of the archives that are currently in existence in the UK combine materials that private collectors and former phrenological groups had acquired.

The Zimbabwean government is convinced that a British museum’s archives include the skulls of the nation’s heroes.

The foremost among them were spiritual authorities, such as Charwe Nyakasikana, who rose to fame as Mbuya (Grandmother) Nehanda because she served as the venerable ancestral spirit Nehanda’s medium. She was taken into custody after being charged with the murder of a British officer.

The body of Nehanda was then allegedly decapitated after being hanged. What transpired next is unclear, however Zimbabwean officials have stated publicly on multiple occasions in recent years that it ended up in the Natural History Museum.

Nehanda, who proclaimed her death with the words “my bones will surely rise,” rose to prominence in the late 1960s as a symbol of those battling against white minority rule in what was then known as Rhodesia.

In 1980, Zimbabwe became independent.

The Mbuya Nehanda statue in Harare was put up in 2021
The Mbuya Nehanda statue in Harare was put up in 2021

In the heart of Harare, a three-meter statue of Nehanda now guards a busy street. President Emmerson Mnangagwa vowed to keep pushing for the return of her skull and other items from the Natural History Museum during its presentation in 2021.

According to Godfrey Mahachi, the delegation’s leader in the UK, who spoke to the BBC in 2020 while the trip was being prepared, the removal of the head “means that you have literally punished the individual beyond the dead” for Zimbabweans.

The spirit of that individual will wander and never settle if the head is severed, according to the saying.

The Natural History Museum and Cambridge University claim they are committed to cooperating with the Zimbabwean authorities to repatriate what was found despite not finding what the Zimbabwean team was looking for.

The Natural History Museum earlier this year returned ancestral Moriori and Maori remains as part of its repatriation policy.

Zimbabwe’s government stated in a news release that the delegation that visited the UK was satisfied that “there are undoubtedly human remains of Zimbabwean origin in the UK” following a recent cabinet meeting.

The government promised to make every effort to ensure the return of our ancestors.

The Zimbabwean delegation also spoke with representatives from the British Museum, the University of Manchester Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, and the UK National Archives. However, no specifics about what was addressed are provided.

Even if this trip to the UK was unsuccessful, the hunt will go on because Nehanda and other people’s remains are important historically to Zimbabwe.

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