How did the skull of a Tanzanian chief find its way into the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI?

Mildred Europa Taylor December 14, 2021
A portrait of Chief Mkwawa, painted my Mrs B. Kingdon, wife of a District Commissioner. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

The Treaty of Versailles that was signed in June 1919 at the Palace of Versailles in Paris at the end of World War I set out peace terms between Germany and the victorious Allies. The Treaty did not only hold Germany responsible for starting the war but also punished it with certain key provisions including the handover of territories and colonies, limits on arms and reparations payments.

In fact, article 246 of the Treaty stated: “Within six months… Germany will hand over to His Britannic Majesty’s Government the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa, which was removed from the Protectorate of German East Africa and taken to Germany.”

Mkwawa had been the chief of the Hehe people in German East Africa (now Tanzania), who opposed German rule. Born in 1855, he was named Ndesalasi, meaning “Troublemaker” but later as an adult, he was named Mtwa Mkwava Mkwavinyika Mahinya Yilimwiganga Mkali Kuvago Kuvadala Tage Matenengo Manwiwage Seguniwagula Gumganga, meaning: “A leader who takes control of the forests, who is aggressive to men and polite to women, who is unpredictable and unbeatable, and who has the power that it is only death who can take him away”.

The Germans shortened his name to Mkwawa. An anti-colonial hero and brave warrior, Mkwawa in 1891 led his troops to defeat the Germans at a battle at Lugalo. Armed with spears, the chief and his troops killed 300 German soldiers and captured their guns.

Mkwawa and his Hehe (Wahehe) people had been winning territory in East Africa around that time as Germany aimed to take control of the region. Three years after the battle at Lugalo, the Germans brought in powerful cannons and were able to defeat the Hehe forces. But Mkwawa was never caught until four years later. In 1895, while the Germans were looking for him, he declared that “rather than submit to German rule he would fight them to the utmost limit, and rather than surrender he would die by his own gun.”

And he is believed to have done that in 1898. That year, a bounty was placed on his head, which led to a manhunt. On July 19, 1898, he reportedly took his own life rather than be captured. He was then sheltering in a cave that was encircled by German soldiers. Sergeant Major Merkl said when he and his forces closed in on Mkwawa on July 19, they heard a shot and hurried towards the camp, where they found Mkwawa and one other native lying down by the campfire.

Merkl ordered his soldiers to cut off Mkwawa’s head to take along to camp in Iringa, where Captain Tom Prince took charge of the head and ‘had it dried’. The skull, which the colonizers used as a symbol to intimidate the Wahehe people in Tanzania, would later be taken to Germany somewhere at the beginning of the 20th Century.

But three days after the end of World War I, Horace Byatt, a British colonial administrator in East Africa, wrote to the Colonial Office suggesting that since the Wahehe people had been helpful during the war that saw Germany defeated, Britain should do its best to recover Mkwawa’s skull from Germany. He argued that doing so would offer “tangible proof in the eyes of the natives that German power [had] been completely broken” while also giving satisfaction to the Wahehe people.

At the time, the British had seized control of German territories in East Africa. At a meeting in February 1919, the four leaders of the main allied powers were not moved by Byatt’s suggestion that the skull should be recovered. One of the leaders indicated that even though it was a good idea it was “hardly a subject for inclusion in the general Peace Treaty”.

But one of the British leaders later indicated that the treaty would “include a schedule of various objects, mainly of artistic and archaeological interest, which [had] been seized by the Germans and which [had] to be restored.” Viscount Milner believed that the skull, which he called a “craniological curiosity”, could be seen as an object of art and added to the list.

And that was how Mkwawa’s skull found its way into the Treaty of Versailles. Per the Treaty, the skull was to be returned within six months. However, it was only after 35 years that it came back home.

Germany had after the Treaty denied it had Mkwawa’s skull and said it could not be found anywhere. But since the British who had then replaced the Germans in East Africa wanted to use the skull to their advantage, they were keen on finding it. Finally, in January 1953, the Germans announced that the skull might be among the large collection of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Bremen.

Edward Twining, the British governor of Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania), traveled to Bremen in June that year to identify the skull in the Museum. He and some officials he had traveled with went to a storeroom where there was a large cupboard full of skulls that had come from German East Africa.

Twining believed that even though Mkwawa had killed himself, the Germans shot him through the head to make sure he was dead. And so when he found a skull that had a hole where a bullet had entered, he had that skull examined. It was confirmed that the hole matched the calibre of the type of bullet the German troops would have used in East Africa.

Convinced he had found Mkwawa’s skull, Twining sent photographs of it to Chief Adam Sapi, who was now Chief of the Hehe or Wahehe people. He accepted the skull as belonging to his grandfather. At a ceremony returning the skull, held at Kalenga on July 19, 1954, Twining celebrated the history of the Hehe and Mkwawa before urging the thousands of Wahehe present to continue in their loyalty to Queen Elizabeth II in exchange for receiving the “benefits of modern civilization and science”.

In terms of loyalty, Twining wanted the Wahehe to fight in Britain’s colonial force known as the King’s African Rifles (KAR) that had been recruited from East Africa and was fighting to suppress the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. It is not recorded what the Hehe present at the ceremony thought of this but what is known is that the British government established a memorial museum and mausoleum at Kalenga in present-day Tanzania, where Mkwawa’s skull and other materials depicting Hehe cultural history were deposited and preserved.

To date, Mkwawa’s skull sits in that museum in Kalenga, serving as a symbol of a proud and liberated Tanzania.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 15, 2021


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