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Updated Jul 8, 2020
A convoy of coffins containing the remains of twenty-four Algerian resistance fighters killed during the French colonial conquest of the North African country heads toward El Alia Cemetery in Algiers.
A convoy of coffins containing the remains of twenty-four Algerian resistance fighters killed during the French colonial conquest of the North African country heads toward El-Alia Cemetery in Algiers. (AFP)

In a symbolic and widely publicized funeral ceremony, the remains of twenty-four Algerian resistance fighters decapitated for resisting French colonial rule in the nineteenth century were laid to rest on Sunday, July 5. The skulls had been held in France as war trophies for decades until a repatriation agreement was reached, part of an effort by France to make amends for its bloody, destructive colonial history.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune attended the interment of the fighters’ remains at El-Alia Cemetery in the capital Algiers, in a section dedicated to fallen martyrs, on the same day as the country celebrated its fifty-eighth year of independence from France.

 

One of two caskets draped with a Namibian flag, each containing ten human skulls, is taken from an airplane on October 4, 2011, in Windhoek. They were the skulls of Herero and Nama genocide victims taken to Germany more than a century before. (Brigitte Weidlich/AFP)
One of two coffins, each containing ten human skulls, is taken from an airplane on October 4, 2011, in Windhoek, Namibia. They were the skulls of Herero and Nama genocide victims taken to Germany more than a century before. (Brigitte Weidlich/AFP)

 

Reckoning with Colonial History

This gesture by France is reflective of a larger trend among former European powers to acknowledge their colonial histories. In 2011 and 2018, Germany returned the skulls of Herero and Nama people to Namibia, more than a century after a genocide carried out by German colonial troops. The skulls had been sent to German universities for “research” by scientists obsessed with measuring racial differences to justify white supremacy.

In a letter sent to President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the sixtieth anniversary of independence from Belgian colonial rule, King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets for the wounds of the past.” During Belgian king Leopold II’s rule of the Congo Free State from 1877 to 1908), millions of Congolese were killed and maimed. After an investigation into abuses, the Belgian parliament took over and ruled the Congo until 1960.

These acts of contrition are appreciated, but they fall short of a full apology demanded by the descendants of those brutalized by colonial-era powers.

 

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