The Herero and Namaqua Genocide occurred from 1904 until 1907 in German South-West Africa (modern day Namibia), during the Scramble For Arica
THE one thing writers of non-fiction can take comfort in is that the reader, whatever they may think of the writing style or the story itself, leaves having learnt something. And when readers respond to the article in writing, they contribute to the conversation, which can even stimulate social change.
About a week ago I posted an article by Daniel A. Gross published in New Yorker, about the violation of the dignity of human remains stolen in the 1850s–1930s in the name of racially-motivated pseudoscience. “When a white man’s grave is dug up, it’s called grave robbing,” as the Tohono O’odham activist Robert Cruz said in 1986. “But when an Indian’s grave is dug up, it’s called archaeology.”
Gross’s story focussed on the relics of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia who died in “what is regarded as the first genocide of the twentieth century. Colonists pushed Herero into the desert and forced others into concentration camps. Sixty-five thousand Herero died,” he wrote.
His moving article tells of a visit to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) by the descendants of the Herero people who came to beg the museum for the return of the remains of their ancestors. Theirs is a conversation and pilgrimage taken by many indigenous people who visit such museums asking for the repatriation of human remains of people killed by colonialists and their remains stolen and shipped across the world for research which has largely been used to “corroborate” the false notion of whites as the superior race.
Gross writes: “On a warm morning last September, a dozen Herero men and women paid a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan. The men wore dark suits and ties, like guests at a funeral. The women wore colorful dresses and hats, following a tradition from Namibia, their home country, in southern Africa. They had come to view relics of a tragic episode in their nation’s history, and to ask the museum, after almost a century, to give them back.
Kavemuii Murangi, an education researcher who lives in Maryland, arrived wearing a gray suit and dark glasses that hid his gentle eyes. Inside the museum, several curators led Murangi and his companions to a private room upstairs. A table was covered with cardboard boxes, which the curators invited them to open when they felt ready. Inside the boxes were human skulls and skeletons. On many of the skulls, four-digit numbers had been scrawled above the eye sockets. Many of the visitors wept at the sight. “We looked at each other, we talked to each other, we hugged each other,” Murangi told me afterward. They were staring at remains of their own people.
The article continues: “In 1906, Felix von Luschan, an Austrian-born anthropologist, sent letters to colonial officers asking that they gather bones and ship them to him in Berlin, for research. In a letter discovered by the historian Andrew Zimmerman, one of the officers replied, “In the concentration camps taking and preserving the skulls of Herero prisoners of war will be more readily possible than in the country, where there is always a danger of offending the ritual feelings of the natives.” In response to one anthropologist’s request, the German overseers of a concentration camp gave Herero women shards of glass and told them to scrape the flesh from the corpses of Herero men. Luschan eventually sold his entire personal collection, including the skulls of thousands of people from across the world, to the American Museum of Natural History. The purchase doubled the museum’s physical anthropology holdings and helped establish the A.M.N.H. as a leader in the field”. Here’s the full article https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-troubling-origins-of-the-skeletons-in-a-new-york-museum/amp?__twitter_impression=true
One of our readers, Elvira van Oudtshoorn, a retired librarian based in Namibia wrote in requesting that I start an online petition for the return of the remains.
“So what are we going to do about this? It has long bothered me, that the preservation and display of human bones should be considered as a natural activity in museumology.
Will you start an online campaign, Miss Khoabane? I do not participate in social media but I do sign online campaigns”.
She went further and wrote to Gross with the most haunting of disclosures:
“I am today a retired librarian and hence my concern for the eventual outcome of these Herero and Nama remains of which you write so eloquently.
All too often over many years have I found unidentified, unclassified dessicated bones, skin like parchment and fragile tufts of hair representing the human lives they once were. The faded tags of identification, the decay covering them like a dust, the nonchalant manner in which they were left on museum shelves were always an undeniable indication of the eventual fate of those human remains.”
Thank you very much for reading my story. The encounters you describe sound unsettling indeed. Can you tell me more? Where did you encounter those remains, and was this a common experience or something that only a librarian might have come across?
If you don’t mind, I would like to share your comments on Twitter, where some of the same audience that saw the story will come across them. And I certainly encourage you to write to others in this field, for example the curator Dave Thomas at the AMNH, and any other museums known to have human remains. I imagine they will be struck by the stories you can tell.
The complete conversation can be found on the comments to the article http://uncensoredopinion.co.za/troubling-origins-skeletons-new-york-museum/
More reading: https://espressostalinist.com/genocide/herero-and-namaqua-genocide/