Ugandan campaigners claim that the Pitt Rivers Museum has refused to return important artefacts looted from the ancient kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara.
Note: This article is from the Guardian.
It is a struggle between the dignity of an embattled African dynasty and the reputation of one of England’s most distinguished historical collections. And it concerns a disagreement that centres on the whereabouts of the lost throne of a Ugandan kingdom and a perceived injustice that is still remembered from the treachery and confusion of the colonial era.
Ugandan campaigners claim that the Pitt Rivers Museum, the anthropological treasure house run by Oxford university and founded in 1884 by the Victorian archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, has refused to return important artefacts looted from the ancient kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara.
They said that during the colonial era, almost 300 artefacts were taken – with or without their owners’ consent – from the region. The kingdom’s current “cultural” monarch, Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I, has spent the better part of his reign campaigning for their return. The kingdom claims to have taken legal action against the British government for theft and destruction of property.
But this weekend Jeremy Coote, joint head of collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum said that he believed there had been a serious misunderstanding about the provenance of the items on show. A ceremonial stool held by the museum was not, Coote said, a royal throne allegedly looted from the kingdom in 1894, but another given to the collection in 1922 to improve understanding of the culture and lifestyle of this part of western Uganda.
In Bunyoro-Kitara the return of the missing throne would be a significant political victory for what was once the greatest and richest kingdom in Africa, but is now one of the poorest regions in an already poor country.
The missing throne is the traditional nine-legged one on which all Iguru’s predecessors sat, up to King Kabalega, who was exiled by the British for resisting colonialism in 1899. The Bunyoro kingdom has maintained since then that Kabalega’s throne was stolen by Colonel Henry Colville in 1894, when he was the commissioner of Uganda.
“All those after Kabalega were not properly installed in office,” Yolamu Ndoleriire Nsamba, the king’s personal spokesman, said. “Solomon Iguru was not properly installed. Without the stool there is no king, no throne.”
Coote said that the museum had received a letter from the omukama, or king, following a visit to the museum in July 2011. “The omukama wrote to the director of the museum in November 2013 expressing his pleasure at seeing that the museum’s collections were so well cared for,” said Coote. “He also stated that he had asked one of his ministers to initiate negotiations … on collaboration and/or possible return of some objects and expressed an interest in particular in what he described as the royal throne (nyamyaro) which was confiscated by Colonel Colville in 1894.”
Coote also said that the museum’s director had replied before Christmas last year “welcoming the possibility of discussing future collaborative projects. The director also pointed out that the stool held here was collected in Bunyoro in 1919-1920 and is not the stool looted by Colonel Henry Colville in 1894, the present whereabouts of which is unknown.”
Thirty of the nearly 300 objects from the kingdom on display in the lower gallery of the Oxford museum were donated to the university by Akiki Kanyarusoke Nyabongo, a prince from the neighbouring kingdom of Toro, who wrote his doctorate on Ugandan religion at the university in the 1930s. Most of the rest were collected by the Rev John Roscoe in 1919-20 during the Mackie ethnological expedition, and then donated to the university by Roscoe in 1922.
But in Bunyoro the issue still rankles. The king sits on a modern chair inside an inconspicuous, overgrown palace tucked away at the end of Hoima in western Uganda. It is from behind the walls of this house, renovated by the current Ugandan government after the restoration of kingdoms in the 1990s, that he and his court try to find ways to build Bunyoro into a semblance of what it used to be – revered and rich. The living room is well-finished, with fine rugs and shiny furniture. But behind the fancy curtains lies a broken stairway, faulty plumbing and crumbling plaster.
Like its people, almost 50% of whom live in poverty, the kingdom is suffering financial difficulties. Any compensation, together with the recent discovery of oil in the region, could relieve that poverty.
Bunyoro says the British took the artefacts as part of a systematic pillage of the kingdom in the 1890s. Ladislaus Rwakafuzi, the kingdom’s legal adviser in Uganda, said the return of the items would bring closure for Africans who continue to suffer the after-effects of colonialism. “If the British came clean, it would be an occasion for us to reflect on the human failings, to show that they are not limited in space and time; [an occasion] to accept that humans are equal and violations are wrong, irrespective of race,” he said.
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