Germany returns skulls of indigenous people

A delegation of nearly five dozen Namibians were in Berlin Friday to receive the skulls of 20 indigenous people killed during a massacre by colonizing German forces more than a century ago.

It is hoped that the solemn ceremony will be a first step toward a greater reckoning with Germany’s brief but brutal African adventure a century ago, according to Agence France-Presse.

“We have come to first and foremost to receive the mortal human remains of our forefathers and mothers and to return them to the land of their ancestors,” delegation member Ueriuka Festus Tjikuua told reporters in Berlin.

He said the mission intended to “extend a hand of friendship” to Germans and encourage a dialogue “with the full participation and involvement of the representatives of the descendants of those that suffered heavily under dreadful and atrocious German colonial rule.”

The skulls are among an estimated 300 taken to Germany after a massacre of indigenous Namibians at the start of the last century during an anti-colonial uprising in what was then called South West Africa, which was a German colony from 1884 to 1915.

Incensed by German settlers stealing their land, cattle and women, the Herero people launched a revolt in early 1904 with warriors butchering 123 German civilians over several days. The Nama tribe joined the uprising in 1905, according to Agence France-Presse.

The imperial German colonial rulers responded ruthlessly. General Lothar von Trotha signed a notorious extermination order against the Hereros.

“Rounded up in prison camps, captured Namas and Hereros died from malnutrition and severe weather. Dozens were beheaded after their death and their skulls sent to German researchers in Berlin for “scientific” experiments,” according to the wire service.

Up to 80,000 Hereros lived in Namibia when the uprising began. Afterwards, only 15,000 were left.

Over time, the skulls gathered dust in the German archives until three years ago when a German reporter uncovered them at the Medical History Museum of the Charite hospital in Berlin, and at Freiburg University in the southwest.

So far, 47 skulls have been found at the Charite and about a dozen more in Freiburg.

The publicity around their discovery prompted Herero and Nama leaders to ask the Namibian government to seek their return. After three years of talks, the delegation arrived in Berlin Sunday.

“The skulls will be handed over to the Namibian government in a ceremony that reflects their historical and cultural importance,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman said, adding that Deputy Foreign Minister Cornelia Pieper would take part.

Charite spokeswoman Claudia Peter said the purported “research” on the skulls performed by German scientists had been rooted in the perverse racial theories that later planted the seeds for the Nazis’ genocidal ideology.

“They thought that they could prove that certain peoples were worth less than they were,” she told Agence France-Presse. “What these anthropologists did to these people was wrong and their descendants are still suffering for it.”

The Namibian representatives will return home Tuesday with a memorial service planned in the capital Windhoek the following day to welcome the 11 Nama and nine Herero skulls, which will go on display in a local museum.

(Above: Chief Alfons Maharero [right] grandson of former Chief Samuel Herero, who led an uprising of the Herero tribe against German imperial rule between 1904 and 1907, shakes hands with Wolf-Thilo von Trotha, a descendent of German General von Trotha at the grave of Chief Samuel in Okahandja.)

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