The unbearable legacies of settler colonialism

Just World Editor Algeria, Antiracism, Blog, Global Balance, Racism

by Helena Cobban

The following piece, by JWE President Helena Cobban, is crossposted from her blog, Just World News:

Today, an Air Algerie plane conveyed to the Houari Boumedienne International Airport in Algiers the mortal remains of Sheikh Ahmed Bouziane, commander of a native-Algerian force overpowered by the invading French in Zaatcha, Algeria, in November 1849, and 23 other members of the defeated Algerian defense force.

According to this account by Madjid Zerrouky in Le Monde, more than 800 Algerians died in the fighting and the survivors were massacred… Zerrouky quotes the head of the invasion force, Gen. Emile Herbillon, as recalling that Sheikh Bouziane, his 15-year-old son, and a Muslim holy man (marabout) were among the few Algerians saved from that initial massacre. But, he continues,

They were later beheaded and their heads exposed at the end of pikes in the market place of Biskra, the regional city, before being sent to France by a military doctor. The practice was then common. Severed heads – war trophies or “scientific elements” – collected in the “colonies” populated [many] European museums.

The skulls of Sheikh Bouziane and other Algerian resistance fighters were then kept in the collection of no fewer than 18,000 skulls held by the “Musée de l’Homme” (Museum of Mankind) in Paris. Zerrouky wrote that, “The beheaded heads of Algerian resistance fighters were long forgotten. It was not until 2011 that the Algerian anthropologist and historian Ali Belkadi rediscovered them… ‘caulked in vulgar cardboard boxes that evoke the packaging of shoe stores’,” as Belkadi described the scene.

It then took a further nine years for the repatriation of these remains to occur.


The repatriation of the long-abused remains of Sheikh Bouziane and his co-resisters comes in time for Algeria’s Independence Day, July 5. Algeria finally won its independence from the settler-colonial regime installed there by France in 1962.

Today and tomorrow, the settler-colonial regime installed on this (North American) continent will be marking its “Independence Day” with, among other events, a fireworks display in the Black Hills area of South Dakota which, as the U.S. government acknowledged in treaties signed in 1851 and 1868, belonged to the Great Sioux Nation. But in the decades that followed 1868, gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the U.S. government forced the Sioux to relinquish part of the Black Hills… Then, from 1927 through 1941, the “White” sculptor (and KKK member) Gutzon Borglum oversaw the engraving into one of the hillsides of massive images of the faces of historic U.S. leaders.

Now known as Mount Rushmore. Being visited by President Trump today as the kick-off for his “Independence Day” celebrations.

The president of the Oglala Sioux, Julian Bear Runner, told The Guardian recently that,

“The lands on which that mountain is carved and the lands [Trump] about to visit belong to the Great Sioux nation under a treaty signed in 1851 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and I have to tell him he doesn’t have permission from its original sovereign owners to enter the territory at this time.”


Ah, the middle of the nineteenth century. A heyday of settler-colonial brutality. Although, the period of human history in which European settler colonialism was wreaking its havoc on “the Darker Nations” (q.v. Kipling) has lasted a very, very long time– on this continent, and elsewhere.

It was in January 1599 that the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate committed the Acoma Massacre, in the area of today’s New Mexico. That was a punitive expedition against defenders of the Acoma Pueblo. According to the Wikipedia account of the massacre,

There were an estimated 6,000 people living at or around the Acoma Pueblo in 1599, of whom at least 2,000 were warriors. An estimated 500 men were killed in the battle, along with about 300 women and children. Some 500 prisoners were taken and later sentenced by Oñate to a variety of punishments after a trial was held at San Juan Pueblo. Oñate ordered that every male above the age of twenty-five would have his right foot cut off and be enslaved for a period of twenty years. Twenty-four men suffered amputation.

Males between the age of twelve and twenty-five were also enslaved for twenty years along with all of the females above the age of twelve. Many of these natives were dispersed among the residences of government officials or at Franciscan missions. Sixty of the youngest women were deemed not guilty and sent to Mexico City where they were “parceled out among Catholic convents”. Two Hopi men were taken prisoner at the pueblo; after each had one of his hands cut off, they were released to spread the word of Spain’s might.


Over recent decades, Juan de Oñate apparently became a beloved historic figure for many, especially Hispanic, people in New Mexico. Schools and roads were named after him and he became a bit of a symbol of “Hispanic Pride”. (That, despite the fact that in 1606 the historical figure himself got recalled to Mexico City, where he was  tried and convicted of cruelty to both natives and colonists. He was banished from New Mexico for life and exiled from Mexico City for 5 years; so he then had to return to Spain…)

But Acomas and other Native Americans had not forgotten about the massacre of 1599. In 1998, hands unknown cut the foot off a large statue of Oñate that had recently been erected a few miles north of Española, New Mexico. And more recently, three weeks ago, there was a sizeable protest at another statue of Oñate, located in Albuquerque, during which a gun-carrying rightwing militiaman ended up himself getting shot.

(The “99 Percent Invisible” podcast has a great 55-minute episode that provides lots of background to the story of Oñate’s foot.)


No consideration of the troubling relationship that so many settler-colonial invaders have with body parts of the indigenous people whom they conquer would be complete without mention of “Sara Baartman”, a young woman of the Khoikhoi people of southwest Africa, who was born in 1789. After her father and fiance were killed, Sarah was sold into slavery to a trader named Pieter Willem Cezar, who took her to Cape Town where she became a domestic servant to his brother. It was during this time that she was given the name ‘Saartjie’, a Dutch diminutive for Sara. Cape Town had recently come under British control though there were still a lot of Dutch companies operating there. One of those was  the VOC, the “Dutch East India Company”, which between 1653 and 1856 brought to South Africa (mainly through Cape Town) 71,000 enslaved persons whom they had captured in South East Asia.

In Cape Town, Sara caught the attention of William Dunlop, a Scottish military surgeon who worked in the Cape “slave lodge” (that is, a holding pen for enslaved persons), who had a sideline in supplying showmen in Britain with animal specimens. He suggested that she travel to England to make money by exhibiting herself. (Her body form was considered “unusual” or “exotic” by Europeans.)

In 1810, she made the journey to London and for the following four years was toured and displayed around various cities in England and Ireland. In 1814, she was taken to France, where she was sold to an animal trainer. While she was in Britain, there were considerable ground to question as to whether she was acting of her own free own will; but in France it was much clearer that she was in fact enslaved. She was displayed nearly nude, and her displays became linked to the emerging theories of so-called “scientific” racism, with claims that it provided evidence of a “missing link”, and so on.

Sara died in France in 1815.

Her skeleton and a plaster-cast of her body were thereafter displayed in the Natural History Museum in Angers, and then moved to– guess where– Paris’s Musée de l’Homme, when it was founded in 1937. Her body cast and skeleton were displayed there side-by-side and facing away from the viewer, which emphasized her steatopygia (accumulation of fat on the buttocks) reinforcing the idea that that was the primary interest of her body. That obscene exhibit reportedly proved “popular” for many years, until protests led to the removal from display of Sara’s skeleton in 1974, and of her body cast in 1976.

Soon after the victory of the ANC in the South African election of 1994, Pres. Mandela started asking for Sarah’s remains to be repatriated. This did not happen until 2002.


Well, these are just a few examples of the degrading abuse that various “White” settler-colonial leaders, officials, or communities have visited on the body parts of Indigenes whom they have conquered and dispossessed. I have reflected for several years now on the fact that the “Enlightenment”, as this exact same period of history has frequently been known in “Western” historiography, was in fact a period of unmitigated horror, degradation, fear, and cruelty for most members of the “Darker Nations” who came under the brutal control of the various European empires during those centuries.

Two other, somewhat related aspects of this matter come to mind. One is that when Europeans talk about the “Enlightenment”, what they’re generally referring to is the spread throughout those centuries of “scientific” knowledge and of the projects designed to gain, process, and share it– at the expense, mainly, of the more faith-based, religious understanding of the world that preceded it.

But how much of that “science” was gained at the expense of, and off the backs of, the dispossessed and massively abused members of the “Darker Nations”?

Indeed, how much of that “knowledge” was pursued precisely with the goal of furthering the ravage and rapine of the cultures, lands, and resources of the “Darker Nations”? (I think of the Lewis & Clark expeditions; or all the attempts at worldwide mapmaking undertaken by Western mapmakers of the early-modern era; or the truly massive effort that Napoleon undertook to document everything of possible value or interest about Egypt… )

Oh yes, of course, there was the Smithsonian Institution and the truly obscene obsession it pursued for many decades, with collecting and cataloguing human bones. (This historian tells us that, “Recent estimates suggest the number of Native American remains held in the collections of U.S. museums number about half a million.”)

Or think of the British Museum and the numerous other grand museums in the capitals of vast European empires, with their proudly displayed, booty-like collections of antiquities that they still hang onto, from all the once-vanquished places…

So the “Enlightenment” was not a happy time at all for members of the “Darker Nations”.

And then, relatedly, how many of the great institutions in which that “Enlightened” knowledge of the world  was displayed, processed, and shared, had themselves been built with super-profits made from investment in the international slave trade? I still recall how depressed I was on learning that places like the Mauritshuis in The Hague or Brown University in Rhode Island, or numerous other places whose cultural/intellectual role I valued had all been built with slave-trade super-profits. You can find lots of details in Hugh Thomas’s book, The Slave Trade.


I am very glad that, as with Sheikh Ahmed Bouziane, as with Sara Baartman, as with some of the Native American bones long held by the Smithsonian, some efforts at repatriation of stolen, desecrated human remains have in recent decades started to be made.

But these repatriation efforts are just pinpricks in relation to what needs to be done. Far beyond such small efforts at repatriation we “White” people need, I think, to start seriously planning how to make real reparations for everything that our communities have taken from, and inflicted upon, the peoples of the Global South– as well as those who were ripped from their homes in the Global South by the horrendous, globe-girdling institution of slavery.