His Skull Was Taken From Congo as a War Trophy. Will Belgium Finally Return It?

Once a powerful local Congolese leader, Lusinga Iwa Ng’ombe fought back against Belgian colonial invaders in the late 19th century.

He was such a thorn in their side that Émile Storms, who commanded Belgian troops in the region, predicted his head would “eventually end up in Brussels with a little label — it would not be out of place in a museum.”

That is exactly what happened. Troops of Mr. Storms killed and decapitated Mr. Lusinga in 1884, and his skull ended up in a box in the Brussels-based Institute for Natural Sciences, along with over 500 human remains taken from former Belgian colonies.

His descendants are struggling to have his remains returned, their efforts unfolding against the backdrop of a larger debate about Europe’s responsibility for the colonial atrocities, reparations and restitution of plundered heritage.

Several European countries, including Belgium, have set up guidelines to return artifacts, but the process has been painfully slow.

The restitution of human remains, which were taken often illegally and cruelly by European invaders from the colonized territories, ending up in private hands or museums, has been even more fraught. In Belgium, it has been stalled by a deep-seated reluctance to grapple with the country’s colonial legacy.

Belgium has drafted a law to regulate the restitution of human remains, but it is likely to face a parliamentary vote only after national elections in June. If passed, it would establish the second framework in Europe for restitution of human remains held in public collections, following a similar law passed in December by France, which set out strict conditions for restitution.

King Leopold II of Belgium seized a vast part of central Africa in the mid-1880s, including the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, which he exploited for personal profit with immense cruelty. Although there are no official statistics, historians estimate that millions died under his rule, succumbing to mass starvation and disease, or killed by colonizers.

Yet today that bloody chapter of Belgian history is not a compulsory part of the school curriculum, and some Belgians have defended Leopold as a foundational figure. There are multiple streets and parks that carry his name and squares decorated with his statues.

In 2020, King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets” for his country’s brutal past in a letter to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of its independence, but stopped short of an apology — which many feared would open the door to legal action by those seeking reparations.

The conquest of Congo coincided with the birth of modern anthropology, with Belgian scientists busily comparing skulls of residents in the Belgian regions of Flanders and Wallonia. The colonial expeditions, which often included medical doctors, were seen as opening up new opportunities for research, said Maarten Couttenier, a historian and anthropologist at the Africa Museum. Belgian colonels were encouraged to bring back human remains to provide evidence for racial superiority.

The idea was, Mr. Couttenier said, “to measure the skull to determine races.”

Mr. Couttenier, along with a colleague Boris Wastiau, broke a decades-old silence about the acquisition and continued storage of the remains, which was known to only a handful of scientists, making the information public through scientific conferences and exhibitions.

Afterward, the discovery of Mr. Lusinga’s skull was brought to light through a news article published in 2018 in Paris Match, a French weekly. The news made it all the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo and to Thierry Lusinga, who described himself as a great-grandchild of Mr. Lusinga, the chief.

Prompted by the find, Thierry Lusinga wrote two letters to King Phillipe of Belgium, asking for his ancestor’s remains, and a third one to the Belgian Consulate in Lubumbashi, his hometown.

“We believe that the right to claim his remains, or the rest of his remains, belongs to our family,” he wrote in the first letter, seen by The New York Times and dated Oct. 10, 2018. “We hope that this matter will happen amicably, in circumstances of mutual forgiveness, in order to write a new page in history.”

He said he never received a reply.

Thierry Lusinga described himself as a great-grandchild of Mr. Lusinga, the chief.Credit…via Thierry Lusinga

In an interview with The Times, Mr. Lusinga expressed hope it was still possible to resolve the issue. “We asked to do this amicably,” he said. “We hope we will be able to sit around a table, and try to talk about repatriation, and why not about compensation for our family.”

Asked for a comment, the Royal Palace confirmed that it had received but did not respond to one of Mr. Lusinga’s letters, “as it did not mention any postal address and had not been addressed directly to the palace.”

The letter had been transferred to the palace by the Paris Match journalist and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, the palace said, with the institute stating in writing that “the matter was being closely monitored and handled by the relevant authorities.”

Questions about Mr. Lusinga’s skull prompted Belgium to try to make a complete inventory of human remains held by its institutions. In late 2019, scientists set out to locate them in storage spaces of museums and universities and to retrace the origins of some of them.

More than a year after the project officially ended, its final report listing 534 human remains from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi was discreetly published online this year, without notifying some of the scientists who worked on it or the public.

Nearly half of the remains were removed from former colonies long after the Belgian government had taken over control from King Leopold.

One of the researchers working on the report, Lies Busselen, discovered that from 1945 to 1946, a colonial agent, Ferdinand Van de Ginste, ordered the exhumation of about 200 skulls from graves in the Congolese provinces of Kwango and Kwilu.

Ms. Busselen also rediscovered the long-lost skull of Prince Kapampa, a local Congolese leader killed in the 19th century, hidden away in a depot closet in the Africa Museum.

Thomas Dermine, the Belgian secretary of state responsible for science policy, said in an interview he was “surprised” by the number of human remains found in Belgian institutions. His office drafted the proposal of the law regulating claims for restitution of human remains.

The draft law also requires a formal request from a foreign government, which could request restitution on behalf of groups that still have “active culture and traditions.” Similar to the French law, it also allows restitution only for funerary purposes.

Mr. Dermine said that his administration consulted the authors of the inventory report — but they recommended that Belgium unconditionally repatriate all human remains in federal collections directly linked to its colonial past.

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo said it was surprised to learn the law was being drafted “without consulting Congolese experts or the Congolese Parliament.”

“Belgium cannot unilaterally set the criteria for restitution,” François Muamba, a special adviser to the president of the D.R.C., said in written comments to The Times.

“Unfortunately, Belgian methods don’t seem to have changed,” he added.

Ferdinand Numbi Kanyepa, a sociology professor at the University of Lubumbashi who heads a research group working on the issue of restitution, said that the return of the skull of Mr. Lusinga was important for the whole Tabwa community, to whom he belonged.

“For us, an individual who has been killed, but is not buried, cannot rest with the other spirits of the ancestors,” said Mr. Kanyepa, himself a member of the Tabwa community. “This is why we believe that, at all costs, the skull of Chief Lusinga must return to the community, and even to the family, to receive a burial worthy of a king.”

Thierry Lusinga, whose request would not be considered legitimate under the draft law, said he felt there must be “something hidden behind” the failure to return the skull. “Maybe Belgium does not want to be denounced as genocidal,” he said. “Maybe Belgium does not want to hear this story.”

His ancestor’s skull is still kept in a storage room of the Institute for Natural Sciences. The institute’s authorities said that upon a request from the Africa Museum, the skull has been transferred from a collective box into an individual one as “a mark of respect.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.

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