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Skullduggery

08 Apr

In 1919 the Allied Powers compelled the German Empire to sign the Treaty of Versailles, thus ending the Great War. The treaty itself is legendary for being a tool for harshly punishing Germany by placing heavy burdens on the defeated nation. These include the dismantling of Germany’s military forces, stripping them of their colonies, demanding the return of an African king’s skull, crippling financial reparations, the…

Wait… what was that?

“ARTICLE 246: Within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, Germany will hand over to His Britannic Majesty’s Government the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa which was removed from the Protectorate of German East Africa and taken to Germany.”

-The Treaty of Versailles

I first learned about this provision while reading the 1938 book Brigade of Spies by William J. Makin. This delightful book is a highly sensationalized collection of questionable anecdotes about spies, focused mainly on tradecraft from The Great War and on through the 20’s and 30’s. It’s a rare glimpse into the world of espionage through the lens of Europe after the Nazis have come to power and before the outbreak of World War II. While I have reason to question many of the details presented, I’ve been surprised to find an element of truth to the stories I’ve investigated further. If you can find a copy of this book I highly recommend it, it reads like one big collection of adventure seeds.

Case in point, the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa.

According to Wikipedia, a source less entertaining but more reliable than Brigade of Spies, the man referred to in the treaty was Chief Mkwavinyika Munyigumba Mwamuyinga, commonly known as Chief Mkwawa. He was the leader of the Hehe tribe in the former German East African colonial region, in what is now Tanzania. His name translates to “conqueror of many lands”. The title of “sultan” seems to be an error, as I couldn’t find any indication that the Hehe tribe were Muslims, and I’ll attribute that to the general European lack of understanding about the people of Africa and the Middle East.

In 1891 the German government sent a battalion of colonial troops under the command of German officers to suppress a rebellion by the Hehe tribe. Chief Mkwawa waited in ambush with a force of 3,000 warriors. German forces, under the command of Commissioner Emil von Zelewski, marched into the trap and were annihilated.

“The Germans imagined he could be easily conquered. A confident Captain Zeuike in charge of a number of askaris, set off for the interior. The Sultan was waiting for him – in ambush. The whole party was massacred and the Sultan returned triumphant to his kraal. Witch doctors danced in triumph and prophesied further victories.”

-Brigade of Spies, pg. 126

Three years later the Germans sent a stronger, and more cautious, force against the Hehe. They succeeded in defeating Mkwawa’s forces, but the chief escaped and continued to wage guerrilla warfare against German rule. It wasn’t until 1898 that the Germans finally cornered Mkwawa, who took his own life to avoid capture.

Most records say he shot himself, though the account in Brigade of Spies gives him a more romantic death by falling on his sword. What the accounts do agree on is that the Germans beheaded the corpse and sent the skull back to Berlin as a trophy.

During the Great War the Hehe people aided the British in fighting against German forces. With the conclusion of the war the story of Chief Mkwawa was retold and the idea arose of returning his skull to the Hehe people in thanks for their aid and as a symbol of Germany’s removal from power in Africa. Most accounts attribute this idea to Sir Edward Twining, then governor of Tanganyika, but again Makin’s book goes with a more romantic story of native delegates in tribal dress traveling to Paris and pleading their case to Lloyd George. What Makin did get correct is that the framers of the document did incorporate the demand into the treaty as Article 246, and once the German government had signed it they were compelled to turn over the skull.

There was only one problem, they had no idea where it was.

Makin’s book describes how over the years this provision would continue to bedevil both the Germans who had lost the skull and the British who had sworn to see it returned. Again there seems to be some truth to this and in 1953 (15 years after Makin’s book was published) Sir Twining once again pushed for Article 246 to be fulfilled. Finally in 1954, after searching a sizable collection of skulls kept at the Bremen Museum, and using questionable methods of deduction, the British government returned a skull to the Hehe people claiming it to be Mkwawa’s.

“The Museum had a collection of 2000 skulls, 84 of which originated from the former German East Africa. He short-listed the ones which showed measurements similar to surviving relatives of Chief Mkwawa; from this selection he picked the only skull with a bullet-hole as the skull of chief Mkwawa.”

-Wikipedia Entry for Chief Mkwawa, 4/7/2015

Chief Mkwawa is a hero to the Hehe people and to this day the skull is on display in Kalenga at the Mkwawa Memorial Museum. His life is already a tale worthy of legend, but when you add the unusual details about his skull and its inclusion in a document that had such an impact on the 20th Century it propels Chief Mkwawa’s story into the realm of mystery and pulp adventure.

Adventurers based on the skull could have British agents infiltrating Nazi Germany to locate the artifact, both to erase the embarrassment to Britain and to gain support in Africa. Meanwhile agents of the Gestapo would strive to keep the skull secret and eliminate the agents, while at the same time concealing the fact that they still possess it.

The importance of skulls is not limited to aboriginal people and inspiration can go into realms beyond Africa. Many religions venerate the bones of their saints, especially the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthadox churches. The skull of a saint would be a powerful MacGuffin for any pulp adventure. Or perhaps clues would be discovered for locating the skull of Brutus, the legendary first king of Britain. A race for such a relic could pit the player characters against all manner of opposition.

If you want something that appeals to those of us in the former colonies, consider this adventure seed; In the late 19th century there was no question that another war was coming in Europe. What wasn’t clear was who would be allied with whom and given the large German-American population there were people who thought the United States might side with Germany. Today we can’t imagine a time when the US and England were not the closest of allies, but before World War I it was not as certain. Especially when you consider that barely 100 years before the Great War the British Empire had invaded the US and burned our capital.

For this adventure the year is 1915. The Great War is well underway and while the German advance has been halted the allies are in a precarious position. England looks to the United States for aid but many of the people there are reluctant to get involved in a European war. Still aid comes in the form of money and supplies and there are those in the US Government who advocate for sending troops.

It is at this point that the player characters learn a well kept secret. During the War of 1812, when British forces were burning Washington DC to the ground, a small detachment was sent into Virginia to raid Mount Vernon. Their they broke into George Washington’s tomb and stole the head from the corpse. The skull was sent back to England as a trophy, but King George IV was appalled by their actions. By royal command all knowledge of the raid was made secret and the skull was hidden in the Tower of London. Meanwhile the Americans also kept news of the theft a secret to preserve morale in the face of invasion.

Now a crisis has arisen. German agents have broken into the Tower of London and stolen the skull. They plan to reveal the story to the world which would enrage the American populace, prevent the United States from entering the war, and possibly end their aid to England. It’s up to the player characters to find a way to stop this plot.

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Posted by on April 8, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Gaming, History, Pulps

 

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