Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, a Tanzanian activist in Berlin, holding a street sign designed as a protest of German colonial actions against the Maji Maji Rebellion (photo by Tahir Della courtesy Berlin Postkolonial)

Officials from the nation of Tanzania have joined an international movement demanding the return of skeletons stolen from Africa by German colonists.

Tanzanian activists, and at least one government official, want Germany to repatriate the skulls of Tanzanian chiefs, including Chief Songea Mbano and Chief Mangi Meli, who rebelled against the German colonial regime in the early 20th century.

“After hanging him, they chopped off the head and sent it to Germany,” said Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, a Tanzanian activist in Germany, of Chief Meli. Mboro grew up hearing stories about the heroism of anti-colonial fighter.

A photograph believed to depict Chief Songea Mbano, whose remains were sent to Germany (via Wikimedia)

Calls for the return of the chiefs’ remains have been spreading for years, according to the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen. An official at the country’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism said that, in response to many requests, he would ask Tanzania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to call on Germany to return the skull of Chief Mbano.

The exact whereabouts of many skulls remain unknown, but at least four German institutions possess human remains from Tanzania, according to the advocacy organization Berlin Postkolonial. One of them, the government-funded Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), is believed to possess the remains of about 60 individuals.

“[The museum] bears the moral responsibility to grant access to its collections to the descendants of former colonized people, as well as to offer the possibility for an apology and repatriation,” the group said in a statement. SPK did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Maji Maji Rebellion began in 1905, after colonists in German East Africa attempted to extract forced labor from the indigenous population. Anti-colonial warriors, including Chief Songea Mbano, took up arms against the Germans. But they were met with a military offensive that not only quashed the rebellion, but also destroyed villages and fields. A resulting famine killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Numerous German institutions collected human remains in the years before World War II. Many skulls were used for pseudoscientific research to support their beliefs about the inherent superiority of Europeans, which Nazi Germany used as justification for the Holocaust. The US also collected human remains in institutions including the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and others.

A 1906 photograph of warriors who were executed for their participation in the Maji Maji Rebellion (via Wikimedia)

Mboro, the Tanzanian activist in Germany, has been trying to track down the skull of Chief Mangi Meli for 40 years. In the 1970s, after he was awarded a scholarship to study in Germany, his grandmother gave him a mission. “She knew then: I will bring the skull back,” Mboro said. “I swore to her, I am going to do the job. I am going to bring it back.”

Mboro hopes the skull can become part of a monument to the heroism of Tanzanian freedom fighters, “so that this story can continue.” But its future will depend on the wishes of descendants. “When we find it, if we find it, then we will see to his family, and decide whether it is going to be buried.”

A scan of a German-language inventory of human remains currently in the possession of the Medizinhistorisches Museum Hamburg, of which No. 153, a skull and jaw described as “Nyassa,” is believed to originate from Tanzania (courtesy Philipp Osten)

Philipp Osten, the director of the Medizinhistorisches Museum Hamburg, told Hyperallergic that he supports the repatriation of human remains currently in Germany. He believes his institution possesses a skull from Tanzania, but says additional research is required.

“The only problem is to make sure that it really originates from Tanzania,” he said. An inventory of the museum’s human remains includes little more than measurements of the skull. Osten has informed the German government, which he hopes will contact the Tanzanian authorities.

Correction: This story has been updated to differentiate between two Tanzanian chiefs, Songea Mbano and Mangi Meli, and to accurately spell the name Philipp Osten.

Daniel A. Gross is a former editor at Hyperallergic, and he is a writer and radio producer in New York City. Some of his stories have appeared in The Guardian, 99% Invisible, The Atlantic, and the website...