in Guyana, the quest for the descendants of the victims of Parisian human zoos

It is a bill that has become consensual, but still sensitive, that the Senate adopted on June 13, at first reading: the text, carried by parliamentarians Catherine Morin-Desailly (Centrist Union), Max Brisson (Les Républicains) and Pierre Ouzoulias (Republican and Citizen Communist Group), will soon facilitate the restitution of foreign human remains kept in French national collections.

Until then, a specific law was necessary to make, on a case-by-case basis, any object kept in museums inalienable – this was the case for the Maori head given by the city of Rouen to New Zealand in 2011or for the remains of slave Saartjie Baartmanthe “Hottentot Venus”, returned to South Africa by law in 2002.

“Restitutions have always raised a debate because museums consider these pieces as archives of humanity, kept for their scientific interest. Moreover, returning them has often been the work of the prince, and on human remains a low profile has long been kept”, summarizes André Delpuech, general curator of French heritage and specialist in colonial archeology. The Presidents of the Republic appreciate, in fact, being able to use these gestures in support of their diplomatic initiatives. In 2020, the handing over to Algeria of twenty-four skulls of colonization war resisters by Emmanuel Macron – in reality a deposit limited to five years for lack of a law – however “constituted a diversion not to be renewed”estimated the senators.

Tomorrow, a clear general framework should make it possible to respond more quickly to the request of a third State wishing to recover identified human remains, in the name of descendants. But the collections, at the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) in particular, also include French and overseas bones. The government has therefore undertaken, through an amendment supported by the Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak, to study “a permanent procedure” to restore the overseas fragments. The MNHN holds 24,000 mostly anonymous human remains, 8,000 of which are French – 1,200 from overseas.

An agony described by the newspapers

They had a tragic fate: eight Kaliña (also called Galibi), Amerindians from Guyana living on either side of the Maroni River and who died of cold in Paris in 1892, are listed in the collections of the Museum: six skeletons arranged on supports, two other people identified by casts. Their name can now be brought to light, thanks to the patient work of a Frenchwoman from this community. Corinne Toka Devilliers, at the head of the ociation Moliko Alet + Po (“the descendants of Moliko”), fights so that her ancestors can find their land of origin. “Not having our dead by our side is very painful”she testifies.

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