By Jeremiah J. Garsha (@jjgarsha)
In 1898, Chief Mkwawa committed suicide after leading a seven-year revolt against German rule. His head was severed to claim a bounty, and then displayed as ‘a family trophy’ in the home of a British-born German colonial administrator. It was then defleshed and the skull was shipped to Germany, where it entered into the entangled streams of skulls collected across the German empire to support the creation of racial sciences. Shortly before the First World War, Mkwawa’s skull disappeared into a museum, university, or hospital archive. After the war, British plenipotentiaries inserted a clause into the Treaty of Versailles calling for a return of ‘the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa’. This article was in the ‘special provisions’ section detailing ‘historical souvenirs or works of art’, where Chief Mkwawa was orientalised as a Muslim ruler and his skull ornamentalised, becoming what the German-born British statesman Viscount Milner playfully called ‘a craniological curiosity’. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the British continued to press Germany to hand over Mkwawa’s head, repeatedly being told that the skull was lost. In 1954, the Bremen museum director contacted the British to inform them that skulls taken from East Africa had been located as the museum’s holdings and were recatalogued following their storage in salt mines during the Second World War. Sir Edward Twining, Governor of Tanganyika, personally flew to Bremen and, using the head measurements of Mkwawa’s descendants, identified Mkwawa’s skull and had it sent back to the colony. The skull was handed over to Mkwawa’s grandson during a recruitment ceremony to enlist colonial soldiers to fight in the Mau Mau emergency across the border. It was then transported to a Mausoleum-Museum where it still sits on display today, owned by the Tanzanian government and yours to view for the price of admission.
Image: Skull of Mkwawa, made available under a public domain licence.