Wednesday, November 1 marked the 63rd anniversary of the start of the Algerian War (1954-1962), which ended 132 years of French occupation of the country. On the occasion, Algeria’s minister of moujahideen (war veterans), Tayeb Zitouni, renewed calls for the return of thirty-seven skulls of 19th century Algerian martyrs, which are currently on display in Paris at the Musee de l’Homme. The demand is not a new one. Earlier this year, Zitouni raised the issue during an official visit to France. Previously, in 2016, Zitouni said Algerians would not be satisfied until the skulls were buried in Algeria, explaining that it was a matter of honor that the remains of the resistance fighters, who were killed by French expeditionary forces, are repatriated to their homeland.
The theft of the skulls is part of mass plundering by the French throughout their occupation of Algeria, and especially during the Algerian War. During the colonial period, France stole a substantial part of Algeria’s heritage, including historical artifacts, books, and maps. Amongst the items pilfered by the French are the library of the 19th century Algerian religious and military leader, Emir Abdel Kader, approximately 50,000 manuscripts that predate the French invasion, and “baba merzoug,” a bronze cannon used to protect Algeria’s Mediterranean coast during the Ottoman period. Renamed “la consulaire” by the French, the cannon is on public display in Brest, France.
The Algerian government has been actively trying to retrieve this stolen history. Often the only way of doing so, however, is by paying large sums of money to those who stole those artifacts. Earlier this year, the Algerian Ministry of Culture announced it had purchased 600 Ottoman-era maps and manuscripts of Algerian origin at a public auction house in Toulouse. The ministry said competition for the items was fierce, with many bids from private French collectors and institutions.
France’s theft of Algeria’s heritage is further exacerbated by the French government’s continued refusal to admit it committed a genocide in Algeria. During the Algerian war for independence from French role, an estimated 1.5 million Algerians were killed. During the colonial period, French forces took measures aimed at reducing Algeria’s indigenous population, using tactics such as trapping and suffocation in caves, to kill whole groups, like the Ouled Rhia tribe.
Pressure must be applied to France not only to return all the archives and artifacts taken from Algeria over the last two centuries, but also to issue an apology for plundering the country and robbing it of its heritage.