Dr. James J. Zogby ©
Arab American Institute
This past 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 obscene 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’ 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 archeologists and then turned over to the museum as part of an effort to study and categorize 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.”
While this entire affair is sordid in itself, equally disturbing is the fact that it was masked by both governments, who in their apparent hunger 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, in my humble opinion, can only be seen as a crude, backhanded, and woefully 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, settler colonial occupation, and brutal repression. This it has not done. The closest it has come is French President Macron’s recent and rather lame “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, France made do with the obscene gesture of a return of decapitated skulls—that only served as a reminder of its brutality and inhumanity.
I write this out of my continued frustration with the way the French and the West, in general, continue to parade themselves as the world’s bearers of civilization, 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 and its people.
This is the story crying out to be told: In its conquest of the land of another people, France 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 no different than many other Western colonial powers, most notably: Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, Germany, and the United States. 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 pretense of a civilized democratic order on the backs and bones of those whom they 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.