The Belated Return of Lumumba's Tooth Shows the Tenacity of ColonialismBreaking News
tags: colonialism, Congo, Belgium, African history, Patrice Lumumba
Nanjala Nyabola is a political analyst and the author of "Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics".
Patrice Lumumba’s gold tooth has finally been returned to his family after 61 years. Collected as a trophy by Belgian soldiers who oversaw or were party to the dissolution of the African leader’s body in acid following his removal from office in a coup, the macabre artefact was finally returned to his family, not with a formal apology but only with an acknowledgement that a great harm had been done.
In the weeks prior, the Belgian king had participated in a tour of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that merely acknowledged the great harm that had been done to ordinary people during the colonial era in that country, but stopped short of offering an apology. It’s taken more than six decades but finally, there is growing acknowledgement by those who hold power in Europe of at least some of the barbarous acts committed against Africans in the name of imperial European power.
There is certainly a crucial conversation to be had about why Belgium saw fit to retain Lumumba’s tooth for so long. What moral justification could there be for not only the cruelty that preceded the act but the act itself? What rationale can be offered for waiting more than 60 years to reunite a family with the remains of a loved one? What could possibly be the political significance of not only keeping the tooth but doing so with the public’s full knowledge?
The only reason that can be offered for keeping a man’s tooth for 61 years knowing that it was obtained through torture and murder is that the cruelty is the point. Colonisation was, after all, a projection of power through cruelty, rationalised by pseudo-intellectual arguments about racial superiority and difference. The fate of Lumumba’s tooth shows that the point of European imperialism was not just economic or social but to offer an outlet for the unchecked cruelty that was increasingly constrained by political change in Europe. Arguably, the ability to project cruelty elsewhere made it possible to contemplate and pursue a different way of organising political life in Europe after several centuries of intense conflict.