London museum stolen items Credit: GIN photo

The era of European museums claiming ownership of the bones and skulls of African war heroes stolen years ago may finally be coming to an end. A negotiated settlement to return African remains involved London’s Natural History Museum and Cambridge University. The two institutions now say they are ready to cooperate and return what was taken in the colonial era.

Human remains ended up in European collections as a consequence of unlawful grave robbing, racist medical research, taken for resale or as priceless mementos. The two museums were among six British institutions visited by a delegation from Zimbabwe. Talks have been going on since December 2014 over the potential repatriation of Zimbabwean human remains. It has long been suspected that body parts of some of the leaders of the First ‘Chimurenga’—an uprising against British rule in the 1890s—were taken to the UK as trophies.

The most prominent of the remains were those of Mbuya Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana (Grandmother Nehanda in Shona), an icon of resistance against British imperialism. Accused of murdering a British official, she was executed in Harare. Today she is revered as a national hero. Her image in the form of a 10-foot-tall statue was erected at the intersection of Samora Machel Avenue and Julius Nyerere Way in Harare’s central business district.

In 2015, former president Robert Mugabe commented: “The First Chimurenga leaders, whose heads were decapitated by the colonial occupying force, were then dispatched to England to signify British victory over and subjugation of the local population. Surely, keeping decapitated heads as war trophies, in this day and age, in a national history museum, must rank among the highest forms of racist moral decadence, sadism and human insensitivity.”

With 25,000 human remains, the Natural History Museum, alongside the Duckworth Laboratory with 18,000  remains, has some of the largest such archives in the world.

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