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Two Speech Acts – An Object

by [Artefakte // anti-humboldt]
18 Nov 2013 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: Afterlives [11] | Commons

Munich 1914/Cameroun 1884

[p. 190] 20 December 1884. The day of revenge. On that day the flag’s glory and the German supremacy was to be confirmed by a big shootout. […] The day of this shooting haunts me like a bad dream. I was in the state of a drunk. Fever and a rush of quinine rumbled in my brain. Nevertheless I was following blindly. Staying was out of question. […] We had been passing the rebels calmly, first up to Hickorytown, and it was only there where the battle started [p. 191]. Down with Hickory and Lock Priso and the English minded Negros! […]

[p. 192] The evening went on ferociously as well. […] Only at midnight silence took over, so we were able to get some sleep, as far as the fever allowed. […] 21 December. The dull and silent morning after the noisy battle started in an angry mood and with evil thoughts […].

[p. 193] Eight wounded and one dead […] were too high a price for a dubious victory over a few hundred Negros who were far from surrendering. A simple threat and palaver would have had achieved much more. […] But begone all this lamenting. Instead of one big palaver there are going to be several smaller ones now. The rebels have been blown apart, and we now have to search for them and pull them back together. Many of them might be sitting next to us like respectable friends, and nothing distinguishes them from the honest and loyal Negros. Only the few leaders are recognisable to us. […]

[p. 194] […] 22 December. The ‘Olga’ throws several grenades with her cannons towards Hickorytown, where enemies are supposed to have been spotted. During this bombardment, which is as impressive as it is ineffective, King Bell appears with several barges full of fantastically apparelled warriors to join in the destruction and quite possibly also the looting.

Then again debarkation. The house of Lock Priso is being demolished, a moving picturesque image. We set on fire. I have asked to search the houses for ethnographic curiosities before they are burnt down. My main loot is a huge scrimshaw, the grandiose decoration of one of Lock Priso’s barges ready to be brought to Munich.”

- Max Buchner, Aurora colonialis: Bruchstücke eines Tagebuchs aus dem Beginn unserer Kolonialpolitik 1884/85 [Fragments of a diary from the beginning of our colonial policy] (München, 1914).

Munich, Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 2012

Schiffsschnabel tangué (prow tangué)

Anonymous, 2nd half 19th century

Douala region/Cameroun

Inv.-Nr. 7087

This scrimshaw prow adorned the nose of a large logboat. These elaborately painted and decorated boats that were able to accommodate fifty or more people were mostly used for festivities like boat parades and regattas, serving to emphasise and exhibit the high standing of their owners.

At the same time the prow bears witness to early processes of globalisation and the political and economic entanglements between Africa and Europe. The elites of the Douala had attained considerable wealth especially through their role in the Atlantic slave and ivory trade. For centuries, they had been taking advantage of the favourable situation of their settlings at the Camerounian coast to establish themselves as middlemen and thereby preventing and controlling the direct trade between European traders and the African societies of the interior regions/hinterland. Besides that, the wealth of certain dignitaries and traders of the Douala society was based upon the labour of the high numbers of slaves working for those elites.

A significant European influence in the material culture of the Douala can be noticed since the mid-19th century at the latest. It became manifest in a characteristic combination of European and local African elements. Also this prow is distinctively influenced by European elements as for instance muzzle, rifle, ship’s bell, paraffin lamp, bottle and glasses for spirits as well as western colourful and water-resistant oil paint.

This prow belonged to the estate of the Bell family, which was headed by King Lock Priso during the 1880s. The German imperial commissioner of Cameroun, Max Buchner, fetched the prow from a burning house that was set on fire during the civil war in Douala. The German gunboat ‘Olga’ had bombarded the village of Lock Priso because he had been attacking at gunpoint the Douala dignitaries allied with the Germans. In the frame of a Schutzvertrag (treaty of protection) the Germans thereupon sent military support. In 1884, after his return to Germany, Max Buchner donated the prow to the Museum of Ethnology in Munich.

Due to the warlike circumstances of the acquisition of the prow by Max Buchner the piece has become increasingly contested and has been brought into the focus of restitution claims. Hence, ethnographic and historical research on this topic has been taken up in 2010.

- Text from the museum label describing the tangué exhibited in the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich.

The tangué is a scrimshaw ornament on the royal rowing boat of King Kum’a Mbape (also called Lock Priso) of today’s Douala, which is retained in the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich (Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde). The violent robbery of this artefact in the course of military conflicts during the seizure and enforcement of German sovereignty on “Kamerun” in 1884 is well documented and proved by the records of the German consul, Dr Max Buchner (1846–1921), who attended the events as representative of the German Empire. He later became curator at the Museum of Ethnology in Munich.

With an official declaration signed “in Bonabéri, formerly Hickory Town” on the 22nd of December 2009 “Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III Le Prince Bele Bele” puts a return claim on the tangué.[1] The descendant of the sovereign succession of the BeleBele people is also known as Prof Dr Alexandre Kum’a Ndumbe for his activities at the Berlin and Douala based independent cultural centre AfricAvenir, which he founded. He habilitated in 1989 on Post World-War II German Africa Policy at the Political Science Department of the Free University of Berlin.

The value of the tangué was rated by the Bavarian ministry in 1999 as being “far in excess of half a million D-Mark.” (approx. 250,000 Euros)


Thank you to the group münchen postcolonial and Annika Butz.


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Artefakte//anti-humboldt is a Berlin based group of artists and scholars - Lotte Arndt (until 2009), Brigitta Kuster, Regina Sarreiter, Dierk Schmidt, Elsa de Seynes - that was founded in 2008 as part of the event Der Anti- Humboldt ( against the re-construction of the Prussian castle and the Humboldt-Forum in Berlin. Artefakte//anti-humboldt pursues its questioning of the ethnographic museums by organizing a workshop on restitution (2008), a lecture and a debate with Françoise Vergès on the “Museum of the present” (2009), an open-air film lecture with mummy films held at the construction site of the to-be-built castle in Berlin (2010) as well as at the musée du Quai Branly invited by bétonsalon in Paris (2011). The lecture formes the basis for the installation “‘Rise for you will not perish’ (on mummymania)” showcased at the exhibition Animism at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2012. Artefakte is currently working on the project “Künstliche Tatsachen/Artificial Fact” in collaboration with the Kunsthaus Dresden (Germany), and partners in South Africa and Benin.
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