October 6, 2011

A long awaited homecoming

On October 4 the skulls of hundreds of Herero and Nama people murdered by German colonialist were returned to Namibia. Their skulls were taken to Germany for experiments, from 1904 to 1907. It took more than 100 years that German authorities have finally agreed to return the skulls. But there are fears that this repatriation is meant as a trade-off to appease Namibians who have been agitating for reparations for the massacre of an estimated 65.000 Herero and Nama people by Germans. Further, there is the possibility that this is meant to stave off demands for the return of priceless artifacts looted by Germany, Britain, Italy and other imperial powers during the slave trade and colonialism.

Several African countries are presently pursuing the repatriation of stolen cultural artifacts that are in European museums, while others – such as representatives of the Herero and the "Land Freedom Army" in Kenya (also known as "Mau Mau") – are demanding reparations for crimes against humanity perpetrated during colonialism. Egypt for example wants the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum and the Nefertiti bust from the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany. In 2006, Illinois State and Hampton universities in the United States returned two wooden memorial statues known as 'vigangos' that were stolen from the Mijikenda of Kenya. Researchers have also tracked down 294 'vigangos' at 19 American museums and the Hampton University Museum alone is reported to be holding 98 of them. The statues were stolen from the graves of revered Mijikenda elders.

In 2005, Ethiopia successfully fought for the return of one a national religious treasure, the 1 700-year-old stone Axum Obelisk, from Italy. In 2003, a German museum handed back to Zimbabwe a soapstone carved bird, the Zimbabwe Bird, after holding onto it for some 100 years. Speaking in connection with items looted from Kenya, in 2008 President Mwai Kibaki said: 'It is important to keep in mind that there are numerous artifacts that were taken out of the country, especially during the colonial period. These are crucial aspects of our historical and cultural heritage, and therefore every effort must be made to bring them back.'

This call came nearly a year after Kenyan officials asked Chicago's Field Museum to return the remains of two famous lions that killed at least 140 Indian workers before being shot by a British railway engineer in 1898. The 'Maneaters of Tsavo' were killed by Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson. In 2006, heirs of colonial-era British officer Colonel Richard Henry Meinertzhagen returned a walking stick, authority baton and v-shaped prayer rod belonging to an ethnic Nandi traditional chief that had been in Britain since 1905.

Writing in 2010, Dr Kwame Opoku, an expert in the area, there are 'thousands of looted/stolen objects that are in the Louvre, Musée Guimet, Musée du Quai Branly and other French museums. Among priceless items in Europe are the Benin bronzes, which the British looted in the 1897 military aggression known as the Punitive Expedition, of 1897. The British stole thousands of the Benin bronzes, massacred the inhabitants of Benin City, executed some nobles, burnt the city, and sent the Oba of Benin, Ovonramwen into exile. The British kept many of the looted Benin items, but sold a lot to the Germans and others. The British Museum which refuses to state clearly how many of the bronzes it has is alleged to be detaining 700 bronzes whilst the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, has 580 pieces and the Ethnology Museum, Vienna, has 167 pieces. These museums refuse to return any pieces despite several demands for restitution. They even refuse to respond to requests by the Oba of Benin and other Nigerian bodies for restitution. On the other hand, they constantly proclaim that there has been no demand for restitution. Their lawyers could tell them that there is no rule in International Law or Municipal Law preventing a holder of a looted/stolen item from returning it to the owner even if there has been no demand for restitution.'

But there are legal bases recognized at international law for the return of human remains and looted artifacts. The Hague Convention of 1907 forbade pillaging and made wartime plunder the subject of legal proceedings. The Hague Convention of 1954 on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was the first international treaty of a worldwide vocation focusing exclusively on protection of cultural heritage. The International Institute for the Unification of Private Law Convention on Stolen or Illicitly Exported Cultural Objects of 1995 called for the return of illegally exported cultural objects. The 1970 UNECO Convention Against Illicit Export under the Cultural Property Implementation Act allowed for stolen objects to be seized if there were documentation of it in a museum or institution of a state party.

The 1978 UNESCO Convention strengthened existing provisions and the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of illicit Appropriation was established. It has 22 members elected by UNESCO's General Conference to facilitate bilateral negotiations for restitution of 'any cultural property which has a fundamental significance from the point of view of the spiritual values and cultural heritage of the people of a member state or associate member of UNESCO and which has been lost as a result of colonial or foreign occupation or as a result of illicit appropriation'. It was created to 'encourage the necessary research and studies for the establishment of coherent programmes for the constitution of representative collections in countries whose cultural heritage has been dispersed'.

The return of skulls to Namibia follows protracted negotiations. The skulls are believed to be of the Herero and Nama people who fell victim to German colonial troops who were bent on subduing what they called South West Africa. The mass killings between 1904 and 1907 are regarded as the first genocide of the 20th century. In 1985, the United Nations Whitaker Report classified this as an attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama people. The government of Germany acknowledged its guilt in 2004 but has ruled out any financial compensation. (The Southern Times)

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