From 2010 to 2013 the Charité Human Remains Project researched the provenance of the remains of fifty-seven men and women from the then colony of German South West Africa. They were collected during German colonial rule, especially but not only during the colonial war 1904–8. The remains were identified in anthropological collections of academic institutions in Berlin. The article describes the history of these collections, the aims, methods and interdisciplinary format of provenance research as well as its results and finally the restitutions of the remains to Namibia in 2011 and 2014.
Results of the Charité Human Remains Project
Holger Stoecker and Andreas Winkelmann
Colonialism, grave robbery and intellectual history
Larissa Förster, Dag Henrichsen, Holger Stoecker and Hans Axasi╪Eichab
In 1885, the Berlin pathologist Rudolf Virchow presented three human skeletons from the colony of German South West Africa to the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory. The remains had been looted from a grave by a young German scientist, Waldemar Belck, who was a member of the second Lüderitz expedition and took part in the occupation of colonial territory. In an attempt to re-individualise and re-humanise these human remains, which were anonymised in the course of their appropriation by Western science, the authors consult not only the colonial archive, but also contemporary oral history in Namibia. This allows for a detailed reconstruction of the social and political contexts of the deaths of the three men, named Jacobus Hendrick, Jacobus !Garisib and Oantab, and of Belck’s grave robbery, for an analysis of how the remains were turned into scientific objects by German science and institutions, as well as for an establishment of topographical and genealogical links with the Namibian present. Based on these findings, claims for the restitution of African human remains from German institutions cannot any longer be regarded as a contemporary phenomenon only but must be understood as part of an African tradition of resistance against Western colonial and scientific practices.
The fate of Namibian skulls in the Alexander Ecker Collection in Freiburg
This article explores the history of the Alexander Ecker Collection and situates it within the larger trajectory of global collecting of human remains during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is then linked to the specific context of the genocide in then German South West Africa (1904–8), with the central figure of Eugen Fischer. The later trajectory of the collection leads up to the current issues of restitution. The Freiburg case is instructive since it raises issues about the possibilities and limitations of provenance research. At the same time, the actual restitution of fourteen human remains in 2014 occurred in a way that sparked serious conflict in Namibia which is still on-going four years later. In closing, exigencies as well as pressing needs in connection with the repatriation and (where possible) rehumanisation of human remains are discussed.
Transnational dynamics in post-genocidal restitutions
Taking its starting point from a socio-anthropological study combining biographical interviews, semi-structured interviews and ethnographic observations collected between 2016 and 2018 in Germany, France and the United States among Ovaherero and Nama activists, and also members of different institutions and associations, this article focuses on the question of human remains in the current struggle for recognition and reparation of the genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama from a transnational perspective. First, the text shows the ways in which the memory of human remains can be considered as a driving force in the struggle of the affected communities. Second, it outlines the main points of mismatches of perspective between descendants of the survivors and the responsible museums during past restitutions of human remains from German anthropological collections. Third, the article more closely examines the resources of Ovaherero in the United States in the struggle for recognition and reparation, the recent discovery of Namibian human remains in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the questions that it raises.
Overriding politics and injustices
Vilho Amukwaya Shigwedha
In October 2011, twenty skulls of the Herero and Nama people were repatriated from Germany to Namibia. So far, fifty-five skulls and two human skeletons have been repatriated to Namibia and preparations for the return of more skulls from Germany were at an advanced stage at the time of writing this article. Nonetheless, the skulls and skeletons that were returned from Germany in the past have been disappointingly laden with complexities and politics, to such an extent that they have not yet been handed over to their respective communities for mourning and burials. In this context, this article seeks to investigate the practice of ‘anonymising’ the presence of human remains in society by exploring the art and politics of the Namibian state’s memory production and sanctioning in enforcing restrictions on the affected communities not to perform, as they wish, their cultural and ritual practices for the remains of their ancestors.
Caroline Fournet, Benoit Pouget and Jean-Marc Dreyfus
Sugar research was only one of a large number of new projects created with the passing of the 1940 Colonial Development and Welfare Act. The Act included a Research Fund that made the Colonial Office the second largest sponsor of civil scientific research in Britain. Scientists and officials spoke of the need to use the Research Fund to support more ‘fundamental research’. The key value that informed the new arrangements intended to expand fundamental research was ‘freedom’. Scientists at the Colonial Office claimed that for the highest quality research to occur, scientists had to be free to choose their own research problems. When it came to sponsoring sugar research as the basis for new industry, freedom was also key. The Colonial Office formed a Colonial Products Research Council to fund research into the basic reactions of sugar, avoiding narrowly defined problems that directly related to the work of any individual firm. Researchers would pursue research of the broadest possible nature, leaving individual companies to apply the results according to their interests. In this way, state-sponsored research would not contravene the principles of liberal political economy.
Experts and the development of the British Caribbean, 1940–62
This book produces a major rethinking of the history of development after 1940 through an exploration of Britain’s ambitions for industrialisation in its Caribbean colonies. Industrial development is a neglected topic in histories of the British Colonial Empire, and we know very little of plans for Britain’s Caribbean colonies in general in the late colonial period, despite the role played by riots in the region in prompting an increase in development spending. This account shows the importance of knowledge and expertise in the promotion of a model of Caribbean development that is best described as liberal rather than state-centred and authoritarian. It explores how the post-war period saw an attempt by the Colonial Office to revive Caribbean economies by transforming cane sugar from a low-value foodstuff into a lucrative starting compound for making fuels, plastics and medical products. In addition, it shows that as Caribbean territories moved towards independence and America sought to shape the future of the region, scientific and economic advice became a key strategy for the maintenance of British control of the West Indian colonies. Britain needed to counter attempts by American-backed experts to promote a very different approach to industrial development after 1945 informed by the priorities of US foreign policy.
Widespread riots occurred across the British Caribbean during the 1930s. The cause was very poor economic conditions during the Depression that resulted, in part, from the collapse of the price of cane sugar. In response, the Colonial Office formulated a solution to Caribbean problems in which sugar would be transformed from a foodstuff in oversupply to a raw material for manufacturing synthetics and fuels. Inspired by the interest shown by major chemical firms such as ICI into the use of sugar and molasses as starting compounds for making polythene and other new materials, the CO initiated a programme of scientific research into the chemistry of sugar. The goal was to find a permanent solution to the persistent problems that affected the Caribbean. In making a commitment to this scheme, officials took a different path from that embodied in the proposals of the recent Moyne Commission that historians have often said provided the blueprint for policies for the Caribbean after 1945.