Madagascar, the skull of a decapitated king soon to be returned?

For more than twenty years, Madagascar has been demanding the repatriation of three Sakalave skulls, named after the ethnic group living in the west of the island. Their return should now be facilitated by the new law on the restitution of human remains of foreign origin, adopted at the end of the process, unanimously by the Senate on Monday December 18. Acquired by France at the time of the colonial conquest, these skulls are today kept at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. One of them is supposedly that of King Toera, beheaded in Ambiky during an attack by French colonial troops in 1897. The other two are those of Sakalave resistance warriors.

These skulls are of such importance to Madagascar that their return has become a presidential promise. For the Sakalave ethnic group, “the religion is based on the cult of royal ancestors” recalls Klara Boyer-Rossol, researcher at the International Center for Research on Slavery and Post-Slavery. “One of the great ceremonies of this cult is the Fitampoha, the Bath of the royal Sakalave relics. But the last royal relic is missing. And without the skull, no relic possible”. Only the bones of the Toera skeleton are therefore exhumed during this annual ceremony. Even if the identification of this skull is not formal at the moment, its restitution remains an essential issue for the Malagasy, who place the relationship with the ancestors at the heart of their rites and beliefs.

Initiated in 2020 by Senator Catherine Morin-Desailly and elected officials Pierre Ouzoulias and Max Brisson, the law relating to the restitution of human remains aims to regulate and facilitate these repatriations, by creating an exemption from the principle of inalienability of public collections. Specific means will be implemented to carry out a complete examination of these remains, examined by a scientific committee in the event of doubt about their identification.

The law specifies that these human remains must be those of people who died after 1500, and the “conditions of their collection violate human dignity or their conservation contravenes respect for the culture and traditions of the group from which they originate”. They must also be claimed by the foreign State for exclusively funeral or memorial purposes. The law establishes an administrative procedure allowing action by simple decree in the Council of State, without the authorization of Parliament.

In the specific case of the three Sakalave skulls, a Franco-Malagasy commission will first have to examine them and confirm the identification put forward by historian Klara Boyer-Rossol. Their restitution may therefore take some time, and the supposed skull of King Toera may not be returned in time for the next Fitampoha ceremony, which will take place during the summer of 2024.

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