LONDON: Sudan is calling for the return of many historic objects held by the UK, including antiquities and human remains, taken during the colonial period after the British Empire invaded the region in 1898.
The list includes two skulls belonging to Sudanese soldiers brought from the Omdurman battlefield that year, as part of a massive trophy hunting and looting program organized by British soldiers. These acts are seen as an attempt at revenge for the death of Major General Charles Gordon during the siege of Khartoum in 1885.
The skulls were moved to the Anatomical Museum in Edinburgh by businessman Henry Wellcome, where they joined a collection of human remains from across Africa to promote racist scientific theories popular in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century.
The authorities in Khartoum are keen for the remains of the two Sudanese soldiers to be returned.
Dr Eglal el-Malik, director of conservation at the National Society of Antiquities and Museums, says: “We need to carry out a large-scale campaign. These people are our brothers, our heroes. They participated in the unification and defense of our country. It is a very particular story of resistance to imperialism. Their descendants should see it all here.”
A standard taken from Omdurman, currently in the Green Library at Durham University Palace, and armor kept in the Royal Armor Collection, are also among the items Sudan wants to recover. The aim is to display them in a specialist museum in Omdurman, recently restored with funds provided by the British Council and dedicated to the battle and heritage of British colonial rule, which ended in 1956.
Museum curator Ahmed Mohammed told the Guardian: ‘I want to show the real details of the Battle of Omdurman and I can’t achieve that if I don’t have all the artefacts. It is very important that the Sudanese people know this.”
Some objects have already been repatriated, including a cloth worn by a Sudanese warrior. It was returned by a British family. One of his ancestors had picked it up from the battlefield.
Despite this will, many practical challenges persist, including legal and security issues.
“There are a lot of Sudanese who want these items back now, but they need to be aware of the legal issues. The reality is that our country is in trouble. It would be great to be able to get all of these items back now, but they’re properly curated and an awful lot of people see them. So we have to be reasonable,” adds Dr. El-Malik.
Not all Sudanese experts even agree on the issue of returning these treasures to the country, given that the nation has been ravaged by war for decades, hampering its ability to recover and safeguard its looted heritage. .
In addition to the British investment in the Omdurman museum, the country’s National Museum in Khartoum is being renovated thanks to a donation of 1 million dollars (1 dollar = 0.95 euro) from the Italian government.
Ghalia Gharelnabi, acting director of the National Museum, says: “The situation here is not suitable. For the moment, the objects must remain where they are, but of course, we would like to display them in our museum eventually.
Dr El-Malik notes that academics and officials from British institutions holding Sudanese items had been “very effective on the whole” on the issue of repatriation.
A Durham University spokesperson says: “We are working closely with the National Society of Antiquities and Museums of Sudan, including on loan requests for several archival pieces for display in Sudan. Both parties recognize that this is not without difficulty.”
Professor Tom Gillingwater, of the Anatomical Museum in Edinburgh, says his institution had not received a formal request for the return of the Sudanese skulls.
“Human remains are now used for research into the history of genetics, diets and population movement. We take our colonial heritage and its contemporary impact very seriously, and we continue to examine ways to address these important issues.
The large number of historical artifacts that Britain took overseas during the time of its empire has been a source of controversy for some time, especially with regard to other artifacts from Sudan dating back to Roman times. and ancient Egyptians.
Other European countries have also tackled the problem: in 2021, Germany became the first country to return the famous statues looted from West Africa in the 19th century, known as the “Benin bronzes”, a number of which are still in the British Museum.
This text is the translation of an article published on Arabnews.com