France Returns New Caldonian Rebel Chief’s Skull

France returning the head of New Caldonian rebel chief Atai in a ceremony Thursday, August 28, 2014. Photo: Bertrand Guay, courtesy Agence France Presses.

France has returned the skull of a rebel leader from the South Pacific island of New Caledonia to his descendants 135 years after he was beheaded in battle, reports AFP. There have been a lot of artworks and objects repatriated in recent months (see “Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts Returns Nigerian Artifacts” and “Painting Looted During World War One Returned to France“), but this is far and away the most unique.

In 1878, the Kanak tribe in New Caledonia revolted against French colonial rule, led by rebel chief Atai. The casualties included 200 Europeans and over 1,000 tribesmen, including Atai, whose head was chopped off amid the fighting.

Atai’s head was preserved in alcohol and studied by European scientists for anthropological purposes. It was displayed in Paris’s first anthropological museum, the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, which closed in 1935, and then at the Musée de l’Homme, also in Paris. It was later thought to have been stolen, but was rediscovered in 2011, and has since been at France’s National Museum of Natural History.

France’s overseas territories minister George Pau-Langevin handed Atati’s skull back to Berge Kawa, the chief’s direct descendant, during a ceremony on Thursday.

“I cannot tell you how emotional I am. I have waited for this moment for so many years. I had started to give up hope,” Kawa told Agence France Presse. “These remains bring us back to our own reality: we are two peoples, two cultures which have never ceased to clash with each other and still clash today,” he added. “We were ravaged by the French state. It is therefore up to the French state to give us back our property.”

New Caledonia is still an overseas territory of France, although it has its own policies for taxes, labor, and trade, and plans to hold a referendum regarding its independence by 2018.

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