Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Stolen African Cultural Heritage – Call for the Return of Ancestral Bangwa Artefacts

Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Stolen African Cultural Heritage – Call for the Return of Ancestral Bangwa Artefacts

[Chief Charles A. Taku is great grandson of Asunganyi, King of the Bangwa, Counsel before International Courts and Tribunals, and Former President of the International Criminal Court Bar Association] 

‘To validate one’s heritage, to explore one’s culture, to examine thoroughly those institutions which have persisted through centuries, is perhaps the first step in a peoples’ search for independence and in their quest for freedom from foreign domination’.

The African Reader: Independent Africa p. 3

Confronting Colonial Objects by Professor Carsten Stahn is an authoritative contribution towards the debate on the legitimacy and legality of claims for reparations by victims of colonial crimes. Reparations in this context include the restitution of stolen or looted African heritage in European colonial possessions. I am an intergenerational victim of colonial crimes and strongly endorse this book. The work provides a sound multidisciplinary platform and tools for the decolonisation of international law; the restitution of cultural heritage and payment of reparations to affected communities world-wide. It identifies obstacles which victims of colonial crimes and affected communities are facing in attempts to obtain reparations for colonial crimes and restitution of ancestral cultural objects. 

Law was lethal tool of colonial rule. It justified, validated, whitewashed and legitimized colonial crimes which Carsten Stahn has identified in this book. It is invoked as a bar to restitution and reparations. It is a capricious instrument of colonialism and its enduring legacy of criminality. 

The resistance towards the restitution of African Heritage artefacts and the payment of reparations for colonial crimes is premised on the supposed legality of the crimes under the General Act of the Berlin Conference, which was signed on 26 February 1885 by nineteen European powers. Article 6 is titled: ‘Provisions Concerning the Protection of Natives, Missionaries and Travellers, and Religious Freedoms’. It states:

All Powers exercising sovereign rights or influence in the said territories undertake to supervise the preservation of the native population and the improvement of their moral and material condition of life, and […] [to] favour undertakings created and organized for that purpose, or aimed at educating the natives and making them understand and appreciate the advantages of civilization. 

As Professor Richard Tsogang has observed in the Atlas of Absence: Cameroon’s Cultural Heritage in Germany (p. 61), Article 6 was followed by a sentence of great significance for the posterity of all European museums but which is rarely quoted: ‘Christian missionaries, scientists and explorers, with their followers, property and collections, shall likewise be the objects of especial protection’. Through state protection for collectors and collections, the colonial project, the rhetoric of civilization and the accumulation of material samples of culture and nature on the African continent went hand in hand from the beginning. Gross colonial violations and serious crimes, such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes were committed in execution of the undertaking for ‘educating the natives and making them understand and appreciate the advantage’. 

The First Hague Conference which was held on 18 May and 29 May 1899, was established to limit the ‘sufferings of war and provided protections for all moveable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people irrespective of origin’. The first of the four German expeditionary campaigns against the Bangwa, during which the palace of the King was burnt down and the extensive looting of the cultural heritage of the Bangwa occurred, commenced in 1899. This treaty framework was modified during the 2nd Hague Conference (1907), the Treaty on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments (Roerich Pact), , and the amended Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) and its two (1954 and 1999) Protocols.

Confronting Colonial Objects discusses inter alia the case of the Bangwa Queen, an artefact of profound spiritual value in European colonial possessions (pp. 196-203). The Bangwa Queen, ‘njuindem’ or LEFEM object, contains evidence of alleged procurement by a colonial agent, Gustav Conrau who was accused by the Bangwa of human trafficking, theft and smuggling of the Bangwa Queen and LEFEM spiritual artefacts. The Bangwa Queen is currently held in the Dapper Foundation in Paris France. Her displacement from her LEFEM sacred environment to European colonial museums, constitutes what Evelien Campfens (p. 260) characterises as ‘a tension between cultural objects as heritage—symbolic of an identity—and cultural objects as possessions—representing economic interests and exclusive rights’’. She has argued that the ‘disconnect between norms on various levels’ constitutes ‘an incentive for trade in looted artefacts-resulting in the destruction, and of cultural heritage and a cause for legal insecurity in the art world.’ 

Carsten Stahn’s research reveals that the Bangwa Queen was collected by Conrau, during a period of resistance by chiefs of the Bangwa people in present-day western Cameroon against German expansion to Grassfields region (p 202). Stahn and Campfens separately found that Conrau acted as colonial agent and requested Asunganyi (ca 187-1951) to raise the German flag in his palace in Azi. Stahn found that Conrau profited from the colonial context, the imperial and trade structures which supported his collecting activity. He argues that ‘the history of collections shows the close link between private collecting, museum networks, and colonial violence, in particular the German effort to extend control’ (p. 197). The stolen collections were officially recorded by the National Ethnological Museum in November 1899. Stahn concludes from this chain of actions that the events following Conrau’s death in December 1899 show that the acquisition could not be entirely disconnected from the context of colonial policies of subjugation. Evelien Campfens and Isabella Bosza arrived at the same conclusion.

Conrau’s letters to Felix von Luschan, who financed and commissioned the collection of Bangwa works in 1888 and 1889, provided accounts of his acquisition of the Bangwa spiritual cultural artefacts. Stahn characterized narratives about the acquisition as controversial. Conrau alleged that he benefited from his alleged closeness to the King, Fontem Asunganyi ( 1870-1951) to procure the Bangwa Queen and other LEFEM figures. On 11 June 1899 he wrote: 

Here in Bangwe I have again collected a lot, particularly fetishes. Some are quite beautiful…….The Negroes keep the good things carefully hidden and you can only get them if you have their trust, secretly, by chatting with them as friends.’

Stahn, p, 199

On 3 September 1899, he wrote that ‘nice old pieces’ were difficult to obtain since they were generally not opened to trade (Stahn, p. 199). On 1 October 1899 he alleged that he obtained the ‘fetishes in all parts of the Bangwe region, and the King allowed his people to sell the sacred artefacts, ‘ old things that people no longer really appreciate today’. He alleged that ‘ the new fetishes from chief Fontem are now mostly covered in beads and that people supplied him with the names of the objects, but he could not vouch for their accuracy . . . since they are most reticent to discuss the fetishes. He thought they might have ‘intentionally given me incorrect information’ (Stahn, p. 199) 

Conrau explained the name and spiritual significance of ‘Njuidem’ but did not provide an explanation of ‘LEFEM and the spiritual context in which Njuindem belonged in LEFEM. LEFEM is the most sacred and revered spiritual sanctuary of the Bangwa. It is the heartbeat of Bangwa spirituality and cultural identity, which is accessible only to initiated persons. Conrau was not one of such persons. No Bangwa would voluntarily sell or hand over the Bangwa Queen and other spiritual LEFEM objects to Conrau or any person. 

Stahn notes that Conrau’s accounts imply that important acquisitions were made through exchanges, rather than coercion, and could not have been made without Asunganyi’s consent, and that some objects were traded secretly. He refers to Bettina von Lintig’s argument that ‘Conrau did not meddle in the affairs of the secret societies while collecting these “rarities,” though he had only his word for this’. Stahn remarked that this ‘theory is supported by Conrau’s good network and relations, the special nature of the objects, and the fact that he did not have direct military support from the colonial administration, but travelled with locals’ (Stahn p. 199). 

However, there is an important counter-argument, briefly mentioned in the work later (p. 201). A key element in the narrative by Conrau was not investigated. LEFEM was the Centre of spiritual and temporal power among the Bangwa. Asunganyi, the King derived his spiritual and temporal power from LEFEM. The Bangwa Queen and other LEFEM objects were central to the source of his power and authority. He could not be complicit in the desecration of LEFEM and relinquishing the source of his own power and authority. German expeditionary force commanders were aware of this. This was the reason why they targeted and looted all LEFEM objects which enhanced the spiritual ability of Asunganyi and the Bangwa to wage war against the German invading army. 

There were no Bangwa locals in Conrau’s entourage. Conrad had a coterie of porters and interpreters who were not Bangwa. He was a deceitful colonial agent who operated under the German flag. This explains the vengeful ferocity of the four expeditionary attacks, collective punishment, looting and theft of spiritual artefacts during the conquest of the Bangwa region from 1899/1900. 

The civilizing mission of colonial rule under Article 6 of the General of the Berlin Conference was broad enough to permit total impunity for atrocity crimes, such as these which occurred against the Bangwa.

In 1901, Schutztruppe Commander Lt. von Pavell arrived and reported the ‘capture of some prisoners and much booty’. As E.M. Chilver notes in the Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, on 24 April 1901, Lt. Strümpell secured the military ‘in order to bring the Bangwa to order’. On 4 April 1903, the German military assembled some 23 chiefs in Fontemdorf ‘who had admitted defeat and paid most of the war damages’. Lt. Rausch arrived with German soldiers and ‘exact(ed) war damages in labour, guns and ivory and to ensure the maintenance of the routes opened by the expedition’ . 

On 30 May 1903, the German colonial administration charged the King, Fontem Asunganyi for depriving Gustav Conrau of his freedom which pushed him to commit suicide, for tough resistance to German expedition and refusing to surrender and to sue for peace. 

Yann LeGall has demonstrated in the Atlas of Absence (p. 122) that there ‘were cases of commissioned looting’. Bernhard von Besser, a captain known for his ‘brutal and even sadistic advances’ was indirectly approached by the Royal Museum Luschan, who had got wind of an upcoming expedition. Von Luschan wrote to the Colonial Department of the Foreign Office in early 1900: 

The Bangwa own a most curious pillared house […]. In the event of a punitive expedition being undertaken, the Royal Museum would have a very great interest in ensuring that this house is not burnt. In the scientific interest, it is urgently desired that at least the pillars and long beams carved with figures be preserved and brought to Berlin. In addition, before the destruction, the recording of exact ground plans and elevations as well as cross-sections of both the pillared house and the adjacent dance house would be very desirable. The destruction of the city of Fontem and the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde’s explicit interest in its architecture exemplify the prototypical process of extraction’.

LeGall, p. 122

European professionals and missionaries participated in these crimes. Dr. Theodor Berké (1870-1949), took part in ‘punitive expeditions’ against the Bangwa in Fontem and the Anyang in the Cross River region in 1901/02 and in 1904 in the grassland. He extracted about 100 human remains, which are now in the Institute for Anatomy in Strasbourg. In addition to cultural objects, a Dr. Esch sent at least twelve skulls to the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde. 

As Confronting Colonial Objects suggests, the enduring effect of these crimes may never ever be cured but restitution and reparations and the decolonisation of international law may carry symbolic weight and restore the dignity and humanity of victims and affected communities in Africa and all parts of the world where they occurred.

Following on my recent statement on the return of some Bangwa-Fontem Cultural Heritage Artefacts on 30 March 2024, I take this opportunity to reaffirm the commitment to intensify the struggle for the restitution of Africa’s cultural heritage artefacts and to call for the immediate removal of all barriers to restitution and for the payment of appropriate reparations for colonial and all historical wrongs. The continuing and intergenerational harm caused by these crimes and the continuing and intergenerational benefits accruing to the perpetrators of these crimes must be denounced by all good people, organisations and all advocates of the sanctity of the world’s common humanity. 

I wish to close with an impassioned call for the urgent and unconditional restitution of the Bangwa Queen in the Dapper Foundation in France, the Bangwa King in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the cultural heritage artefacts which are in the National Ethnological Museum in Berlin and Municipal Museums in Germany, in the Netherlands and other parts of the world.

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