On a Saturday in January 1835, a group of African Muslims, most slaves, began an uprising in Salvador, a city in the Brazillian state of Bahia. It was called the Males uprising, likely after a Brazilian word borrowed from the term “imale,” which means “Muslim” in Yoruba. Partly out of fear that revolutionary sentiment would ferment further, the Bahians violently punished the rebels and suppressed the activities of the Males.
Like Harvard, Brazil has a legacy of slavery that reaches back centuries. It was a main port of the slave trade, receiving almost half the slaves forcibly extracted from Africa and sent to the New World. And it was the last place in the Americas to formally abolish slavery, with many Afro-Brazilians still feeling the effects of this bloody history today. Now, due to skull records, we know that the supposed remains of at least one of the Male rebels ended up in the hands of Harvard.
This discovery comes in the aftermath of a report that found that Harvard holds the remains of 19 individuals who were enslaved and thousands of Indigenous and Native American remains. While the histories of each are long and winding, we know that the skull of the Male revolutionary ended up at Harvard through Gideon T. Snow, a U.S. citizen who lived in Brazil for some time. Snow sent the skull to Boston, where it was donated to the Boston Society for Medical Improvement. Eventually, the skull made its way into the hands of the Warren Anatomical Museum, a part of the Harvard Medical School.
Now the Islamic community of Salvador in Bahia is calling for the repatriation of the enslaved man’s remains. According to reporting by The Crimson, in September of this year, Harvard said that they would return the remains of the 19 enslaved people, but as of yet, no further steps seem to have been taken. Advocates for the Islamic community in Salvador say that repatriation would begin to address Harvard’s violent legacy of scientific racism.
Museums are not neutral spaces. They can maintain and exhibit histories of oppression. In particular, this case highlights the global reach of anti-Blackness. The transatlantic slave trade wasn’t an isolated, unidirectional event, but one that spanned geographies to the point that the skull of a leader of a Brazilian slave revolt could end up in the hands of America’s premier university.
In recent years, calls for the decolonization of museums and the repatriation of their artifacts have increased. I struggle to believe that an institution could come to accumulate human remains, especially in such a quantity as Harvard has, through ethical means. As such, and to heal the communities from which they were taken, returning them should be a first priority.
Even in death, through the inaction of museums, these individuals remain captive, denied a proper burial. Bodies of people enslaved and exploited during life should not suffer experimentation or exhibition in death.
Harvard has released a report about their Legacy of Slavery. Now it is time to act. Returning the skull so that the Islamic community of Salvador can, at long last, provide it a proper funeral will represent a small but essential first step in the repatriation revolution needed to atone for Harvard’s harms.
Christian A. Gines ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Mather House.