Last week, a major US daily paper ran a lengthy feature article titled, “France’s Return of the Skulls of 24 ‘Resistance Fighters'.” The article reported on France’s repatriating 24 skulls to Algeria that were reputed to be the decapitated heads of Algerian resistance fighters. The piece was both shocking and infuriating.
Instead of unearthing the history that lay behind this entire affair, the focus of the story was that only six of the skulls could be properly identified as belonging to Algerian fighters with the other 18 being of unknown background. With both governments apparently intent on ignoring the questionable provenance of the skulls, the transfer was heralded as a “powerful gesture” and a “milestone in [France’s and Algeria’s] efforts to rebuild ties". In the end, the story raised more questions than it answered and revealed a past, as one Algerian historian noted, “which spoke volumes about colonial barbarism".
The Algerian skulls were reputed to be the heads of resistance leaders and civilians beheaded during France’s 19th-century conquest of North Africa. According to the report, they had been “displayed on poles” and were “taken back to France as war trophies". They were part of a collection of 18,000 human bones culled from former French colonies and housed in Paris’s Museum of Mankind. Among the thousands of skeletal remains in the collection were bones from across Africa, North America and Asia. They had been brought to France by both members of the French military and archaeologists and then turned over to the museum as part of an effort to study and categorise racial differences.
France’s repatriation of these skulls, it appears, is only one of about 20 such French returns of remains to other countries, and, in this instance, can only be considered incomplete – France is only “lending” them to Algeria for a “period of five years".
Disturbing is the fact that the entire affair was paid little attention to as governments, who in their apparent desire for a diplomatic victory, presented the return as an important step in rebuilding ties. To be sure, rapprochement is to be heralded, but “renting” the bones of Algerian martyrs can only be seen as an inadequate way of accomplishing this objective.
France would have done better to offer a full-throated apology for the horrors inflicted on the Algerian people during its century-long conquest. This it has not done. The closest it has come is French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent “both sides suffered” remarks.
What remains on the table is France’s need to offer some form of reparations for the damage it did to Algeria and its people. Instead of taking such a step, it made do with the gesture of a return of decapitated skulls – which only served as a reminder of its brutality and inhumanity.
I write this out of my continued frustration with the way several western nations continue to parade themselves as the world’s bearers of civilisation, culture and values, while caricaturing the peoples of the East or the South as lesser species. Their racialist “scientists” in the Museum of Mankind measured cranial capacity in the skulls they studied in order to demonstrate white superiority. Their social scientists studied what they considered inferior cultures, while their political and military leaders conquered the lands of these “lesser peoples", imposed themselves on them, and despoiled their resources to serve the higher purposes of western countries. In Algeria alone, millions were killed or allowed to die from disease and starvation in the interests of France.
This is the story crying out to be told: in their conquest of the land of another people, French forces had beheaded those who resisted. They put their heads on poles and brought them back to Paris as trophies and sent them to a museum to study them along with the bones of other conquered peoples from the South and East.
In this regard, France was not much different from some of the other western colonial powers, most notably Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, Germany and the US. The worldwide wreckage and human suffering left in the wake of their conquests and exploitative rule are not just a matter of history. The damage done continues to shape the present-day realities of their victim nations.
The bottom line is clear: the West built its wealth, and its pretence of a civilised democratic order, on the backs and bones of those whom it crushed. To move forward, there must be an acknowledgment of and reckoning for the damage done, and then actions taken in the name of restorative justice. Sending back skulls that only serve to remind the victims of past evil adds insult to injury.