The unending quest to find an executed Tanzanian chief’s head taken to Germany in 1900

Nduta Waweru November 23, 2018
Mangi Meli. Photo: Wiki CC

Among the many atrocities colonialists carried out in Africa is the decapacitation of some of heroes and fighters who led the scramble for independence.

In Kenya, British Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen ordered the beheading of Koitalel Arap Samoei, the Nandi leader who had resisted their encroachment. The head has still not been returned to his family until today.

In Tanzania, the same was carried out by the Germans. The victim: a Tanganyika hero known as Mangi (Chief) Meli Kiusa bin Rindi Makindara.

Meli was the leader of the Chaga community of Tanzania. The Chaga inhabit the southern and eastern slopes of Kilimanjaro and Meru mountains.

Meli was the son of Mangi Mandara, who cooperated with the Germans. He took over his father’s chieftaincy in 1891 and continued working with the Germans until the colonialists asked for compensation. Meli refused, resulting in a revolt that saw losses on both Chaga and German sides. The revolt continued until 1893 when the Germans defeated the Chaga but kept Meli as the chief.

According to history, the Germans starved the Tanzanians, burnt down homes and farms and enforced hardship to make the people submit to German rule.

The BBC reports that the governor of German East Africa, Gustav Adolf von Götzen defended the ‘starvation warfare’ by saying: 

“As its last option, the Schutztruppe had to use the cooperation of hunger. Burning down villages, fields and food supplies might seem barbaric to the distant observer. This method of warfare was not just the most promising one, but also the only practical one. According to me, military actions alone will be fruitless, only hunger and hardship will be able to force people into final submission.”

Meli was accused of conspiracy to overthrow the German rule and was captured together with other Chaga leaders and executed right in front of his people at Moshi, which was the headquarters of the colonial government.  Soon after the officer in charge ordered the decapitation of Meli and the transfer of his head to Germany.

The unending quest to find an executed Tanzanian chief's head taken to Germany in 1900

Tree where Mangi Meli was hanged. Photo: John Gidamali, 2013.

It would be discovered later that the capture and execution were faulty and the officer in charge was relieved of his duties.

Over the years, the Chaga have been trying to get the head returned from Germany’s museums.  One of the people at the forefront of these efforts is Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, a Tanzanian based in Germany. Coming from the same region as the slain chief, Mboro promised his grandmother that he would return the skull.

That was in 1977, but the quest had started in 1968 by Meli’s family and members of Old Moshi community, said Meli’s grandson, Isaria Anael Meli.

The unending quest to find an executed Tanzanian chief's head taken to Germany in 1900

Isaria Meli, the slain chief’s grandson. Photo: Wiki CC

One of the things Mboro did encounter in his search was the collection of numerous skulls in the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (known by its German initials SPK), gathered from different regions of Africa.

Over 200 remains came from Tanzania alone and many others came from Rwanda, Togo and Cameroon between 1884 and 1918. Most were collected as trophies and others were allegedly taken to Berlin for studies on racial classification, thanks to German anthropologist Felix von Luschan, a collector who asked people in the colonies to collect and send human remains to Berlin.

The search was even made more difficult by the fact that Lt Col Moritz Merker, the second in command, did not identify the skull of a chief in his records at the time when he sent the skulls to Berlin.

The call for the return of the head was sounded again in 2005, with Old Moshi natives asking for government intervention in bringing back the hero’s remains.  Five years before this, the German Ambassador to the country had responded to letters from the Chaga, stating that his country has searched for the skull in their museums but to no avail.

The unending quest to find an executed Tanzanian chief's head taken to Germany in 1900

Old administrative building of the German colonial power in Moshi. Photo: Wiki CC

As Germany is coming to terms with its colonial past, in October 2017, it started trying to establish the origins of the remains at the SPK, a year after a journalist revealed the extent of human remains in the museum.

Now 87, Meli’s grandson Isaria has taken a DNA test in Berlin to help in the search of his ancestor’s remains. He was invited by the SPK, which had identified six skulls that could be from Old Moshi and linked to the 1900s when the chief was killed.

The result of the DNA test is expected in the first half of 2019. While acknowledging the possibility of no match, Isaria hopes he would still be alive to see skull found and returned home.

Last Edited by:iboateng Updated: November 23, 2018


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