Tanzanian Families Pursue Repatriation of Ancestors’ Skulls from German Museum


For over sixty years, Isaria Anael Meli has trodden a painstaking path in search of his grandfather’s final earthly remains. He is convinced that the cranium of his ancestor, Mangi Meli, found its way into a museum in Berlin. The path leading to this possibility is a grim one; over a century ago, his grandfather and 18 of their chiefs and advisors were executed by the German colonial force.

The German government, after a considerable period, has expressed readiness to apologize for these execution acts in the present-day northern Tanzania. However, the conclusion of this chapter is not confined to one family’s search. Other families have similarly pursued the remains of their ancestors. In a trailblazing usage of DNA research, two skulls, among the museum’s extensive collection, have been identified as those of the executed prisoners.

The sight of an acacia tree on the lower slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro is an uncommon one. Its gnarled branches reach skyward, standing out distinctively amidst the surrounding dense, verdant vegetation. Once upon a time, it cast a shadow over a bustling marketplace, a center of community bonding for the villagers of Tsudunyi – now known as Old Moshi. Here, they thrived on the rich, fertile land and reveled in the refreshing coolness brought on by the higher altitude.

However, beneath this tranquil visage lies the echo of a cataclysmic tragedy. Where once stood a congregation of peaceful villagers, the hangman’s noose claimed 19 lives on the 2nd of March, 1900. Hurriedly tried and sentenced the previous day with accusations of planning assaults on the German colonial forces, their voices were silenced forever.

The land now known as Tanzania was once stamped under the authority of the German colonial force, courtesy of the decisions made during the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. Decision-makers sitting halfway across the world decided the fate of the local inhabitants without their consent. Mangi Meli, noteworthy among the chiefs for his initial success against the German forces, was one of the leaders made an example of, likely in an attempt to deter others from following suit. Moreover, in a shocking display of complete disregard for human dignity, various body parts, including heads, were packed and shipped a staggering distance of 6600 kilometers to the German capital.

Despite years since the brutal event, the wounds of the past still linger. Anael Meli recalls his late grandmother’s narration of the execution, of how she was forced to witness her husband’s public killing. His voice lacks anger, instead echoing sadness and bewilderment over the allowed cruelties. With a floppy sun hat disguising his tenacious personality and bright eyes twinkling with hidden resolve, Meli recalls his grandfather appearing in his dreams, promising to return one day.

The search for Mangi Meli’s remains has consumed decades of Meli’s life. Despite being rebuffed by officials claiming the loss of relevant records in the destruction of World War Two, Meli remained undeterred. He expressed disappointment in the German authorities, claiming their indifferent attitude towards the issue to be reflective of their dismissal of the Mangi Meli family as insignificant opponents. The loss of their ancestor’s remains has brought upon the family a profound sense of loss that transcends the sense of historical injustice.

The absence of identified remains that could have been accorded the traditional Chagga burial rites is deeply distressing, particularly to the members of the ethnic group, prominent in today’s Tanzania. The dead, according to Chagga customs, were expected to be buried in their homestead to continue overseeing the prosperity of their families. The mere idea of their remains taken away from their homeland has caused deep unease among their descendants to this date.

For the heads of galleries and museums spread across 19th and 20th-century North America and Europe, such concerns didn’t register. The widespread fascination with phrenology drove them to assemble large collections of human remains, including skulls. Armed with the veneer of a pseudo-science involving the shape of one’s skull reflecting their fundamental characteristics, patterns of racial hierarchy were sketched, with collections growing from every part of the globe.

The skulls of the executed men likely found their place among the troves of anthropologist Felix von Luschan of Berlin’s Royal Museum of Ethnology. A notable number were likely shipped to Germany probably around the time of the execution, adding to von Luschan’s vast archive. Some of these were sold off by his widow to New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Although the documentation for the rest has been largely lost over years, the search goes on, fueled by the hope of finding Mangi Meli’s remains among the collections.

As negotiations for the repatriation of the identified remains proceed, the families await the German government’s response. The execution of the 19 men over 123 years ago is among the multitude of crimes that the current government has acknowledged. Minister of State, Katja Keul, confirmed that Germany was prepared to apologize for the atrocities committed in the past. However, Anael Meli is left frustrated by the fruitlessness of his decades-long search, fervently hoping to catch a glimpse of his grandfather before his own time runs out.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here