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  • Writer's pictureGuerrillas of Tsavo

Why is a Tanzanian chief's skull mentioned in the Versailles Treaty?

The Treaty of Versailles, signed exactly a century ago, reshaped Europe in the wake of World War One. So why, within its many hundreds of clauses, does the treaty refer to the decapitated head of an African anti-colonial hero?

Chief Mkwawa's skull now sits on a plinth, protected by a glass box, in a tiny museum in a small town in central Tanzania. But like a trophy, it once adorned the house of a colonial official in Germany's administrative centre in Bagamoyo, before being spirited away to Germany at some point at the beginning of the 20th Century.

The skull was used as a symbol to intimidate the Wahehe people, who the chief had led in a fierce rebellion against the German colonisers.

So successful was his campaign in the 1890s that a bounty was put on his head by the Germans. He is believed to have eventually taken his own life in 1898, rather than submit to the humiliation of being captured, as he sheltered in a cave that was encircled by German soldiers.

Two decades later, the fate of his skull was on the minds of the diplomats who spent months arguing over the settlement of World War One.

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