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The Return Of The Bootees 

By Azore Opio

When we think of two centuries ago and the atrocities that colonialism afflicted on Africa, we cannot fail to focus on the nasty, humiliating anthropological exploitation and plundered patrimony. Now conscience seems to be catching up with the heartless looters who ravaged the African continent, and they are sending back home the bootees, one by one.

The return of the loots began in August 2002 with the bones of Saartjie Baartman from the Natural History Museum in Paris. It took a Nelson Mandela, a Thabo Mbeki and eight years of inter-governmental wrangling and a change in French law to convince François Mitterrand for Saartjie’s remains to be returned to South Africa, and be buried beside the banks of the Gamtoos River, where she had been born more than two centuries earlier.

Probably born in the 1780s, Baartman was transported to England by a ship’s doctor, William Dunlop, somewhere around 1810. The deal; she would make a fortune by exhibiting her body to Europeans. Thus, she became a circus freak in Piccadilly, exciting crowds of Londoners with her protruding backside and large genital organs, likened to the skin that hangs from a turkey’s throat.

At 225 Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket in London, as shown by contemporary descriptions, Baartman paraded naked along a "stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as …ordered".
After four years of being paraded around London, Baartman was taken to Paris in 1814.

Archival accounts say she was handed to a "showman of wild animals" in a travelling circus. When Baartman died in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Surgeon General, George Cuvier, made a plaster cast of her corpse before he cut out her brains and genitals and preserved them in laboratory bottles which were displayed at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris. Thus, our naked and exotic savage excited the attention of the Parisian intelligentsia at the time and the pseudo-scientific minds of Europeans then.

The second loot to come back to Africa was the 1,700-year-old granite Axum Obelisk 70 years after it was looted by fascist Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. The 24-metre high stone, an important national symbol in Ethiopia, was looted in 1937 on the orders of Mussolini. It would return only in 2005, piece meal. The first piece, a 58-tonne middle section of the funeral stone, was flown from Rome to the northern Ethiopian town of Axum in a cargo plane.

The latest loot to return home is the severed head of Ghana chief which was taken to the Netherlands as a trophy. The ancient Badu Bonsu II’s head was discovered last year in a jar of formaldehyde in the anatomical collection of the Leiden University Medical Centre. A Dutch Major General, Jan Verveer, had hacked it off the owner in 1838 (171 years ago) in retaliation for Bonsu’s killing of two Dutch emissaries, whose heads were displayed as trophies on Bonsu’s throne.

Talking about African heads kept in Europe as trophies, nobody knows the number. It is, however, known that some German universities still have dozens of African human skulls, remains of the colonial-era Herero massacre, in their archives. Forty-seven Africans’ skulls are said to be still stored at the Medical History Museum at the Charité hospital in Berlin and at least a dozen more at Freiburg University. Over six thousand skulls as well as dried skin, hair, plaster casts of faces, heads, hands, and feet are said to make up the macabre collection. Recently, a former Namibian Ambassador to Germany, Professor Peter Katjavivi, demanded that the universities return the skulls to their rightful places.

Herero Massacre

It would be recalled that the Herero people rose up against German colonial rule in January 1904 to protest against the stealing of their land, cattle and women. The response was ruthless. The Herero were defeated at the battle of Waterberg later that year, followed by the notorious "extermination order" of General Lothar von Trotha, under the direct command of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin. Between 50.000 to 80.000 Hereros were butchered. Only about 15.000 survived the campaign that ended in 1907.

In 2004, the German Overseas Development Minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, had expressed Germany’s regret for the Herero deaths during an event marking the centenary of the massacre, though the State President of Germany, Herzog, had refused in 1998 to make any formal apology to Namibians.

Sometime in October 2007, the European descendants of Lothar von Trotha, met with chiefs of six Herero royal houses [Omaruru] in central Namibia following an invitation from the Herero Supreme Chief, Alfons Maharero, to express regret and shame for the actions of their ancestor. Chief Alfons Maharero is the grandson of Samuel Maharero who led the wars against the German incursion in 1904. Will Africa ever be compensated for all the atrocities, ignominies and humiliation it suffered in the hands of heartless colonialists?

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