That it took Belgium so long to hand over the stolen tooth of the murdered Congolese independence hero is a symptom of the moral decay that continues to fester and poison the colonizer.
Patrice Lumumba’s gold tooth has finally been returned to his family after 61 years. The macabre artifact was collected as a trophy by Belgian soldiers who oversaw or were party to the decomposition of the African leader’s body in acid after his removal from office in a coup d’état, and was eventually returned to his family, not with a formal apology but only with an acknowledgment that much harm had been done.
In the weeks before that, the Belgian king had taken part in a tour of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which only acknowledged the great damage done to ordinary people during the colonial era, but stopped offering an apology. It has taken more than six decades, but finally, there is a growing recognition by those in power in Europe of at least some of the brutal acts committed against Africans in the name of Imperial European power.
There is certainly a crucial conversation to be had about why Belgium felt it necessary to keep Lumumba’s tooth for so long. What would moral justification there be for the cruelty that preceded the act and the act itself? What reason can be given to wait more than 60 years to reunite a family with the remains of a loved one? What could be the political significance of not just holding the tooth but doing so with full knowledge of the public?
The only reason that can be given for keeping a man’s tooth for 61 years, knowing that it was obtained through torture and murder, is that it is cruelty. Colonization, after all, was a projection of power through cruelty, rationalized through pseudo-intellectual arguments about racial superiority and difference. The fate of Lumumba’s tooth shows that European imperialism aimed not only economic or social but also to provide an outlet for the unchecked brutality that was increasingly curtailed by European political changes. The ability to project cruelty elsewhere made it possible to devise and pursue another way of organizing European political life after several centuries of intense conflict.
In his scorching Treatise on Colonialism, Aimé Césaire argues that the barbarity of colonialism was driven purely by contempt and that this contempt and hatred of “the natives” changes the person who practices contempt. Césaire argues that the colonizer can only make peace with the cruelty he inflicts on the other by becoming inhuman – the boomerang of colonization.
Whatever justifications are given for preserving these macabre trophies only underscore the fact that colonization has changed moral calculations in the colonizing countries and that defending the preservation of these artifacts as trophies is a symptom of morale: Decay that continues to plague both the colonizer and the colonized.
Indeed, the case of Lumumba’s tooth is a high-profile example of a practice carried out by all imperial powers, including the United States, well into the first half of the 20th century.
European and North American museums are full of macabre displays of the body parts of people who perished and preserved as trophies. Some of these museums have refused to return to families or be buried with dignity. For example, in 1905, when the British colonial administration was consolidating its rule in the now Kenya area, a British soldier requested a meeting with the Nandi chief, Koitalel Arap Samoei, ostensibly to discuss peace. Instead, the soldier shot Samoei at close range, beheaded him, and returned his head to London as a trophy. The skull is currently part of the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, despite numerous requests from Nandi leaders to return it to Kenya for a proper burial.
Meanwhile, a 2011 audit of German museums found at least 50 heads and skeletal remains of Maori people in German museums. And recently, Harvard University turned down a request from Native American communities to return the human remains of their ancestors to the university’s collection. Dehumanizing non-white people and collecting their bodies as trophies was an almost universal practice in imperial countries that cannot be justified in modern times. However, Western historians and anthropologists continue to argue that these human remains should be preserved as an attempt to human history to be held. They may well be, but it’s worth exploring what aspect of human history they hold. By papering the macabre provenance of these items, the museum has a dreadful view of humanity, confirming its complicity in the brutality of colonization as the ultimate place for the purification and dissemination of the racist logic of colonization.
These objects, kept as trophies in museums and private collections, are physical evidence of the enduring racist logic of colonization – and that meaningful decolonization is urgent and necessary. There is no reason to justify their continued presence in these spaces other than the continued disdain of non-white populations worldwide. Whatever justifications are given for preserving these macabre trophies only underscore Césaires’ argument: “No one colonizes innocently…a nation that colonizes or that justifies colonization is already a sick civilization.” Césaire continues, “the museum means nothing … when secret contempt for others withers the heart”.
No pedagogical value can dismiss the practice of collecting and displaying human remains. The only justification is racially arming the other person’s body to excite and entertain the white public.
Patrice Lumumba’s wife, Pauline Opango, herself an activist, didn’t die until 2014, reminding us how young he was when he was murdered (just 35) and how recently he committed the atrocities that justify these institutions. Mere recognition is not enough. Refunds and returns are just a start. Without apology, the poison remains in the system and continues to plague the perpetrators and victims.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.