London’s Natural History Museum and Cambridge University have reiterated that they are ready to cooperate with Zimbabwe to return human remains that were taken in the colonial era.
The fresh statements come after a delegation from Zimbabwe held talks with officials from both institutions.
The Zimbabweans are looking for the skulls of late-19th Century anti-colonial heroes, which they believe could be in the UK.
The authorities in Zimbabwe have long suspected that the remains of some of the leaders of an uprising against British rule in the 1890s, known as the First Chimurenga, were taken to the UK as trophies.
The most significant among them was Charwe Nyakasikana, a woman who became known as Mbuya Nehanda who was executed in what is now the capital, Harare and is revered as a national heroine. She opposed colonial rule in the late 19th Century.
Other skulls that are reportedly in the UK’s museums where they are displayed as trophies of war belong to Sekuru Kaguvi, Chingaira Makoni, Chinengundu, Mashayamombe, Mapondera, Mashonganyika and Chitekedza Chiwashira.
However, Josephine Higgins, the Communications Manager of the Natural History Museum in London told Pindula News early last year that the UK had no Nehanda’s skull. Higgins said:
We have had previous discussion with Zimbabwean officials on this subject but after extensive research have found no evidence to suggest that remains of Mbuya Nehanda or others associated with the First Chimurenga, either in terms of names or origins, are held or have ever been held by the Natural History Museum. We have shared all the information we have with the authorities in Zimbabwe and are continuing discussions with the Zimbabwean government.
Higgins spoke after an anonymous official at the UK Embassy in Harare told The Herald in May 2021 that there were some negotiations over the repatriation of Nehanda’s skull.
Meanwhile, the Natural History Museum says it has uncovered 11 remains “that appear to be originally from Zimbabwe” – but its records do not connect them with Nehanda.
These include three skulls taken in 1893, thought to be from Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, as well as remains uncovered in mineshafts and archaeological digs and later donated.
Cambridge University‘s Duckworth Laboratory said it has “a small number of human remains from Zimbabwe”, but in a statement sent to the BBC it said it had not identified any of these as belonging to First Chimurenga figures.
The Natural History Museum, with 25 000 human remains, and the Duckworth Laboratory, with 18 000, have some of the largest such archives in the world.