Bangwa collection from colonial context revisited. Museum objects as “the conscience of black civilization”

by Isabella Bozsa

Since October 2019, I have been working as a provenance researcher at the Municipal Museum of Brunswick (SMBS) within the framework of the research project PAESE (Provenance Research in Non-European Collections and Ethnology in Lower Saxony). At the centre of my work is an ethnographic collection of about 700 objects from Cameroon, which the museum received from Kurt Strümpell (1876-1947), a colonial officer from Brunswick, between 1901 and 1908. Of particular interest are the circumstances of acquisition or appropriation under German colonial rule. Furthermore, my research seeks to identify representatives of communities of origin; descendants of former owners, users, or producers (cf. DMB 2021: 22), and to inform them about the whereabouts of objects possibly linked to them. By establishing contact with community members, I ask whether it is possible to reanimate their relation to the objects of the museum collection and which knowledge and meanings they attribute to them (cf. Basu 2015: 348). This new knowledge may either challenge the ontological status of things as ‘epistemic objects,’ which they obtained upon entering the museum (cf. Alberti 2005: 567) or raise questions as to the future handling of objects or even lead to claims for restitution. In this paper, I would like to draft some (post)colonial entanglements of three Bangwa1 objects of the collection at the Municipal Museum in Brunswick based on my archival research and my exchange with His Royal Highness Chief Charles Achaleke Taku. Chief Charles Taku is a representative of the Bangwa community: he is a member of the royal family of Fontem2 and acts on behalf of His Majesty Fontem Asabaton. In addition, he is a criminal and human rights lawyer at the International Criminal Court in Hague, Netherlands. With the support of the PAESE project and together with colleagues of the SMBS and the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum (RJM)3, I organised his visit to Germany in July 2021.

Appropriation (hi)stories in archival and oral sources

My provenance research began with a study of the Strümpell Cameroon collection at the SMBS. Together with the PAESE cooperation partners like Paul Chlisthène Dassi and Rachel Mariembe4, we identified a sword with an animal skin scabbard and two big staffs decorated with colourful glass beads as ritual objects, used in ceremonial dances of kingdoms in parts of North-, South- and West Cameroon as “culturally sensitive collection items” (DMB 2021: 20). From the museum records, we learned that their cultural attribution is “Bangwa,” which ties them regionally to today’s Anglophone Cameroon. Furthermore, they are described as former attributes of a chief. On the index card of the sword, even the name of the kingdom is noted: Fontem. This is very helpful information as the ruler at the time of “collecting” is known to have been Fontem Asunganyi (ca. 1870-1951). His encounter, negotiation, and war against the German colonial administration were documented extensively in the scientific literature (f.e. Temgoua 2014; Michels 2004; Brain 1972; Chilver 1967). In the oral history of the district Lebialem, Asunganyi appears as a local hero: his royal authority, his resistance against colonial powers, the regaining of his throne in Fontem under British Colonial after many years of exile in Garoua in Northern Cameroon, and his rule until his death in 1951 is well remembered (Gouaffo, Michels 2019: 21; Michels 2004: 159f, Brain 1972: 70; Interview with the King of Lenale Ndem, 27.10.2020). As additional sources, I sifted through the military reports of Strümpell at the National Archives Berlin and tried to trace the objects mentioned there. My research showed that one of his first tasks as a lieutenant of the imperial protectorate troops, ”Deutsche Schutztruppe”, followed the first brutal military “expedition” under captain von Besser, which marked the beginning of the “Lebang-German war” (Atem 2000: 79). Strümpell’s order was to head a military intervention to enforce “punitive war retribution payments” (Lintig 2017: 107) from Fontem Asunganyi in December 1900. This brought Strümpell into direct contact with the local ruler. In fact, Strümpell mentioned three objects in his report. These resemble very strongly to some objects stored in Brunswick. Aside from a large number of ivory tusks, the provision of labourers and other resources, he noted “self-made weapons” (BArch R 1001/3348, Strümpell from 14.12.1900, translation IB) as “punishment payments” that the kingdom was forced to give to the German administration. When I discussed the archival evidence with Chief Charles Taku, he emphasized the exploitation of wealth and resources of the kingdom of Fontem and the brutality of the German troops, who came with “overwhelming force,” as he put it. In this sense, the appropriation of cultural goods by German officers or colonial agents for museum collections can be understood as part of colonial exploitation strategies. In addition, the looting of the palace of Fontem by German troops in 1901 is a major reference point in Bangwa historical accounts and is regarded as the main source for the “acquisition” of many Bangwa objects in Museums in Europe and the US (cf. Campfens 2019: 80).

Isabella Bozsa and Chief Charles Taku examining one of two ceremonial staffs in the storage of the Municipal Museum of Brunswick. © Städtisches Museum Braunschweig, Foto: Dirk Scherer.
Isabella Bozsa and Chief Charles Taku examining one of two ceremonial staffs in the storage of the Municipal Museum of Brunswick. © Städtisches Museum Braunschweig, Photo: Dirk Scherer.

In his military report, Strümpell also describes the way he came into possession of the two staffs: “Just before I reached the border between Banjang and Bangwa, formed by the Bayo River, messengers sent by Fontem arrived. They welcomed me to Bangwa land and handed me two large sticks decorated with beadwork about 50 cm wide. They indicated that carrying one of these sticks on my part would be a sign that I wanted to make peace with him” (BArch R 1001/3348, Strümpell from 14.12.1900, translation IB). Chief Taku and my further interview partner Dr. George Atem5 contested this explanation. Both of them doubted that Asunganyi would have given the two staffs voluntarily to Strümpell, because they were symbols of his authority, power and recognition. According to Chief Taku, only the context of war and strategic behaviour of Asunganyi could serve as a possible explanation: “These are instruments of authority and power of war, the capacity to make war and saying I [Asunganyi] want peace now, so, I think what the German officer wrote I find consistent with the circumstances of war and of negotiating in that. It is unfortunate that after that the bigger expedition came and […] really caused a lot of devastation and the looting went on” (Interview with Chief Taku, 23.03.2021). Dr. George Atem argued that in case Strümpell did receive the staffs by Asunganyi, he should have also given them back: “Asonganyi had his own symbol of recognition and they were those staffs. Any person in the Fondom seeing somebody with those staffs immediately knew that the man was known by Asonganyi and he had seen him, it was a symbol of recognition. Thereafter the staff will be return[ed] to Asonganyi waiting for the next occasion or the next person, so if Stumpell (sic.) went away with those staffs he was wrong. It meant he stole them. The successor of Asonganyi had a major problem because the symbol of the throne was no more there, and he had to introduce a ring. If a stranger came and wanted to move around, any person in the Fondom seeing the ring will know that the man has seen the Fon. The ring has not work[ed] well because it had not received ancestral blessings like the staffs. The staffs went through many generations and so received ancestral blessings” (e-mail of Dr. George Atem, 26.05.2021). Furthermore, both of them highlighted the spiritual value of royal objects like the sword and the two staffs. They described them as links to the ancestors that guarantee the kingdom’s well-being and that of its people. Consequently, they interpret catastrophes and misfortune that the kingdom of Fontem and the Bangwa people had to face in the last century as a consequence of the loss and dislocation of spiritual objects from the palace: “These symbols are the spirits of our art, but the arts themselves are not only symbols. The arts themselves are actually a mechanism of spiritualism of ritual of communicating with our ancestors. That the Bangwa queen6 has powerful, powerful spiritualism to the extend, that since the Bangwa queen disappeared […] a lot of calamities have befallen the people […] they explain to the people: Look, this is happening, because she is not there, until she comes back […] so this symbolism as it is and memorization are institutionally linked” (Interview with Chief Charles Taku 23.03.2021).

Chief Charles Taku with the two ceremonial staffs of his great grandfather Fontem Asunganyi at the Municipal Museum Brunswick, 20.07.2021, Photo: Isabella Bozsa.
Chief Charles Taku with the two ceremonial staffs of his great grandfather Fontem Asunganyi at the Municipal Museum Brunswick, 20.07.2021, Photo: Isabella Bozsa.

Revaluation of museum collections

Instances in which specific “acquisition” circumstances, a “community of origin,” previous owners and their direct descendants can be identified are very rare in provenance research on collections of colonial contexts and come along with many challenges.7 Therefore, I consider it serendipity that I succeeded in tracing these three objects of the collection of Brunswick to the former Bangwa ruler Fontem Asunganyi and even more that I was able to get in touch with today’s representatives of the royal family of Fontem. The latter was only possible by scientific and personal networks and I would like to thank my colleagues for their personal effort.8

Welcoming Chief Charles Taku at the Municipal Museum of Brunswick was an important event for all involved parties. For him, the moment of re-connection with the objects and, through them, with his ancestors, was very emotional. Furthermore, he emphasized the suffering of the local population of the Bangwa region under German colonial rule and the necessity of historical reconciliation. Beyond that, he pointed out that the objects symbolize the ingenuity, skills and beliefs of all black-positioned people, who should be respected and honoured. When I asked him about his feelings, he answered: “It is a historical moment for the simple fact that I had the opportunity to talk to my ancestors. To talk to Fontem Asonganyi, my great-grandfather, talk to Fontem Defang, talk to Fontem Njifua, talk to my mother Helen Atabong Asaba Fontem, talk to my grandfather Asaba Fontem and the other ancestors. But also more important and linked to these are the ordinary men and women and children of my kingdom, many […] that Strümpell and others took for forced labour and never came back. It is the history coming to reconcile itself and I was able to hold that stick of authority here of my grandfather. Being the first person […] to see and touch it in generations of more – I mean – more than a century and 20 years and to be here personally, I think it is a very very, not just an emotional moment for me, but also [other members of the Bangwa community for example to] my elder cousin her royal highness Mafua Ngolefe. She sent a text message to me this morning and said that: Finally, we have hopes. Finally, we have hopes. (…) Means we can now sleep in peace that we now are reconciling with this history and the reality of this history. And I think being here today to represent them is a very heavy responsibility, but it’s a moment of extreme confidence and also for me to be able to serve his Majesty and being a traditional ruler that concerns and to protect the interests of my people. And one other aspect, that I have to emphasize is that these – we call them the work of arts no doubt – but […] I will say it again that these works are the conscience of black civilization. It is not just about the Bangwas as such or about Fontem, it’s about black civilization generally and the people who put effort to make these symbols, its spirituality and everything. It is all what humanity is about and black civilization that we pay homage to” (Interview with Chief Charles Taku, 20.07.2021).

For my research, I learned a lot about his perspective on the entangled history, the spiritual value of the objects, and the cultural practices of the Bangwa attached to them. New knowledge was generated within this process. Perceiving and touching objects as materialized connections to former ancestors questions their ontology as “ethnographic objects” in the collection. It reveals the plurality of meanings of them, which opens a window to a current anthropological approach. The objects carry multiple meanings and potential for the reanimation of old relationships as well as to establish new ones. This, for example, can be achieved through (post)colonial provenance research in the way I designated it in this case.

Beyond that, Chief Taku’s visit has shown that the recognition of communities of origin, violent German colonial past, as well as postcolonial continuities is key in coping sensitively with objects from colonial contexts in provenance research and in restitution processes. By announcing a future official request for restitution by the King Fontem Asabaton, he claimed for the recognition of the royal family and the Bangwa community of Fontem as their rightful owners. At the same time, he acknowledged the “opening” of museums to persons from the countries of origin and the attempts of provenance researchers like me on behalf of PAESE and Rainer Hatoum9 at the SMBS as positive examples for new dynamics taking place in museums with ethnographic collections. Concerning the Bangwa-German war and colonial injustices still affecting the societies until today as the broader context, it became evident that these topics are more present in the cultural memory of the Bangwa than in German society. Thus, the recognition of the crimes committed by German colonial forces in the past and today’s cultural needs of affected communities by us as provenance researchers on collections from colonial contexts and the concerned museum representatives is necessary and can lead towards reconciliation. An exhibition where descendants of colonised people tell the history of the colonial past from their perspective could support this process by decolonising museum displays and the sovereignty of interpretation. In that sense, descendants of the colonised and the colonisers can work together productively on the entangled history, or the “shared problem” of colonial legacy – as Flower Manase10 has put it at the PAESE conference in June 2021, and it can become a starting point of new relationships. The director, Peter Joch, Rainer Hatoum and I fully agreed with Chief Charles Taku, that the relationship between him and other representatives of the Bangwa and the Municipal Museum of Brunswick should endure even after a potential return of the objects. Moreover, Chief Charles Taku demanded the respect for black skills and spiritualism on a global scale. Referring to the recent Black Lives Matter movement, this appears overdue. How it relates to his pan-African or diasporic background and the ongoing Anglophone crisis in Cameroon has to be discussed elsewhere.


Literature

Alberti, Samuel (2005): Objects and the Museum. In: Isis 96 (4), p. 559-571.

Atem, George (2000): The Fontem Kingdom. A brief history and tradition of Lebang people. Buea.

Basu, Paul (2015): Reanimating cultural heritage. Digital Curatorship, Knowledge Networks, and Social Transformation in Sierra Leone. In: Coombes, Annie; Phillips, Ruth (Ed.): The International Handbooks of Museum Studies: Museum Transformations. Chichester.

Brain, Robert (1972): Bangwa kinship and marriage. London.

Campfens, Evelien (2019): The Bangwa Queen: Artifact or Heritage? In: International Journal of Cultural Property 26, p. 75–110.

Chilver, Elisabeth (1967): The Bangwa and the Germans: a tailpiece. In: Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 4 (1), p. 115–160.

De Fabo, Julia Lynn (2014): Interpretations, Constructions, and Appropriations of Meaning of the Esteemed Ancestress Figure from the Cameroon Grassfields. In: Senior Projects Spring 2014 14.

Deutscher Museumsbund e.V. (2021): Guidelines for German Museums. Care of Collections from Colonial Contexts. 3rd Edition 2021. Berlin.

Dunstan, Elizabeth (1965): A Bangwa account of early encounters with the German colonial administration. In: Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 3 (2), p. 403–413.

Forni, Silvia (2016): Masks on the Move. Defying Genres, Styles, and Traditions in the Cameroonian Grassfields. In: African Arts 49 (2), p. 38-53.

Gouaffo, Albert; Michels, Stefanie (2019): Einleitung. In: Gouaffo, Albert; Michels, Stefanie (Ed.): Koloniale Verbindungen – transkulturelle Erinnerungstopografien. Das Rheinland in Deutschland und das Grasland Kameruns. Bielefeld, p. 9-28.

Lintig, Bettina von (1994): Die bildende Kunst der Bangwa. Werkstatt-Traditionen und Künstlerhandschriften. München.

Lintig, Bettina von (2017): On the Bangwa collection formed by Gustav Conrau. In: Tribal Art 86 (1), p. 94-116.

Michels, Stefanie (2004): Imagined Power contested. Germans and Africans in the Upper Cross River Area of Cameroon, c.1887-c.1915. Münster.

Temgoua; Albert Pascal (2014): Le Cameroun à l’époque des Allemands. 1884-1916. Paris.


1 The term Bangwa refers to the ethnolinguistic group of Ngwe speaking people in today’s Anglophone Cameroon and the Diaspora. The name was initially a foreign designation by neighbouring non-Ngwe-speaking groups and was introduced as an administrative unit during the German colonial period (Lintig 1994: 54). In Cameroon, it is linked to nine villages with Lebang as one of them, as it has its headquarter under the paramount ruler of Fontem (cf. Atem 2000: I). The ethnic name should not be confused with the kingdom Bangoua, which is located in the Francophone area of Cameroon.

2 Fontem is originally a title of the Fon (King) of Lebang. During the German colonial era, it was introduced as a place name and remained until today. Today it refers to the place as well as the royal dynasty.

3 A commemorative figure of a notable or chief from the Bangwa region is currently on display in the exhibition “Resist! The art of resistance”. It was also brought to Germany by the colonial officer Kurt Strümpell, who handed it over to the SMBS in 1902 with over 200 objects from the so-called Grassfields. After an exhibition with the artist and art collector Claus Clausmeyer in 1955, the statue became a trading object and entered the collection of the RJM in 1966 (https://www.postcolonial-provenance-research.com/exposition/rjm_inv-nr-48796/ at 29.07.2021)

4 Paul Dassi is the conservation manager in the Route des Chefferies. Rachel Mariembe is head of the Department of Heritage and Museum Studies at the Institute of Fine Arts of the University of Douala in Nkongsamba. Collaborative provenance research was planned as an integral part of the PAESE project but was instead very limited due to the pandemic.

5 Dr. George Atem is a retired historian and vice-president of the Catholic University of Buea, as well as a notable and titleholder of the Fontem kingdom.

6 The “Bangwa queen” mentioned here is an ancestral figure that was brought from Fontem to Berlin by Gustav Conrau (f.e. Campfens 2019: 82). As an exception of Grassfield arts, she became a famous piece of art in Europe in the 30s, was traded for a high amount by Sotheby’s, and is today in the possession of the Foundation Dapper in France (Forni 2016: 52; De Fabo 2014: 43ff).

7 The difficulties can range from simply identifying today’s location of a colonial attribution, different concepts of ownership, or even work against the interests of communities of origin by collaborating with national institutions or museums in postcolonial states (cf. DMB 2021: 47f).

8 Special thanks to Evelien Campfens for kindly connecting me with Chief Charles A. Taku. I would also like to thank Albert Gouaffo, Ricardo Garcia Marquez and Yagmur Karakis, just to name a few who I collaborated with on this issue.

9 Rainer Hatoum is a provenance researcher and head of the ethnographic collection at the SMBS since 2020.

10 Flower Manase is a curator at the National Museum of Tanzania and a cooperation partner within the PAESE project.


Oral and digital sources

  • Virtual Remote Interview with the King of Lenale Ndem, Fonjinju Tatabong Alexandre on 27.10.2020
  • Virtual Remote Interview with Chief Charles Taku, 23.03.2021
  • Interview with Chief Charles Taku in Brunswick, 20.07.2021
  • Virtual Remote Interview with Dr. George Atem, 9.04.2021
  • E-mail by Dr. George Atem, 26.05.2021

Isabella Bozsa, M.A., is provenance researcher at the Municipal Museum in Brunswick in the project PAESE. Her PhD at the African History Department of the Leibniz University Hannover focuses on (post)colonial acquisition histories and meanings of a collection from Cameroon. From 2013 to 2019 she held different positions at the Museum der Kulturen Basel (MKB). As part of a fellowship at the MKB, she analysed the history and origin of the Basel Mission Collection from Cameroon and India. She studied Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology, Tibetology, Gender Studies and Religious Studies at the Georg-August University of Göttingen and the University of Basel.

PAESE is a joint research project in Lower Saxony and stands for „Provenienzforschung in außereuropäischen Sammlungen und der Ethnologie in Niedersachsen“ (Provenance Research on Non-European Collections and Ethnology in Lower Saxony). For more information please visit: https://www.postcolonial-provenance-research.com/


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