By Andreas Thomas
Windhoek – Namibia has adopted a hardline stance in its pursuit for the return of historical and cultural antiquities that were stolen from the country and currently adorning museums and displayed in private collections in the West, including Germany.
Namibia went through colonial periods, first by the Germans from 1884 until 1919. It was later taken over by the Union of South Africa, then part of the British Empire, until independence in March 1990.
During those intervening years, many historical and cultural artefacts were stolen and taken to Europe. Like other African nations, Namibia has been calling for the return of its relics, through negotiations with Western museums and institutions, with little success.
But authorities seem to be shifting from quiet diplomacy and adopting an open strategy in an effort to bring some of the original relics back home. The Museums Association of Namibia (MAN) recently called for the return of the padrão taken from the Cape Cross, a headland in western Namibia.
The padrão or Stone Cross of Cape Cross, as it is popularly known, is currently part of the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s permanent exhibition since 2006.
The stone was erected in 1486 by Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão (1450-1486) on the instruction of King John II of Portugal to signify his claim to the land. The stone is inscribed with texts in Latin and Portuguese.
It was removed and taken to Germany in the 19th century, during its occupation of the former German South West Africa.
In 1895, Kaiser Wilhelm II had a replica of the original padrão made and erected at the Cape Cross as a symbol of his own power.
MAN has argued that the Stone Cross is an object of immense historical significance. Over the years, Namibia has been calling for the restitution claim to the original Stone Cross.
Namibia’s Founding President Sam Nujoma made the initial demand for the return of the original relics during an official visit to Germany in 1996. This was followed by a formal request by former foreign affairs minister Theo-Ben Gurirab in 1998. The Namibian government submitted a third request in 2017.
MAN Director, Jeremy Sylvester, stressed that the removal of the stones “was a visible assertion of Germany’s colonial power over Namibia”. He said a German replica was erected at the site, but was not a real replica of the Stone Cross, as it bore the emblem of the German Empire.
He made the remark while addressing a symposium hosted by the German History Museum on June 8 in Berlin entitled `The Stone Cross from Cape Cross – Colonial Objects and Historical Justice’.
The German government has acknowledged the need to deal with its colonial history due to the fact that the European nation had to learn in past decades to take responsibility for historical pain and injustice, said Monika Grütters, the German Minister of State for Culture and the Media.
Grütters made the remark during a symposium hosted by the German History Museum on June 8 in Berlin entitled `The Stone Cross from Cape Cross – Colonial Objects and Historical Justice’.
“In the recent coalition agreement, the German Federal Government has once again acknowledged the need to deal with our colonial history. In this respect, we in Germany are helped by the fact that we have had to learn in past decades to bear responsibility for historical pain and injustice.
“Building on this wealth of experience, we are also facing up to our colonial past and seeking to work alongside the countries and societies of origin to look for and find, constructive paths.
“This is part of Germany’s historical responsibility towards the former colonies – and a necessary precondition for reconciliation and understanding with the people living there,” she said.
The debate that was attended by over 350 global experts including ethnologists and museum experts centred around one of the historical objects that symbolises the earliest evidence of the encounter between Namibia and Europe from the 1400s.
According to the German historical museum, the aim of the gathering was to make an important contribution to current debates emerging from the reappraisal of colonialism, which includes historical, curatorial, and moral aspects, for instance, the issue of Stone Cross of Cape Cross.
The symposium dealt with questions including ‘to whom does the Stone Cross belong? Where does it belong? What claims and issues of moral responsibility are associated with it? What questions relating to the colonial past and historical justice can be linked to the Stone Cross of Cape Cross? What is its actual location – Germany, Portugal, or Namibia?’
Silvester argued that the meaning of the Cape Cross is tied to its intended location and that, in his opinion, should and rightly be displayed at a site on the Namibian coast.
“The restitution should be seen as part of a wider process when the colonial period facilitated the extraction of heritage objects from Namibia. A wider discussion should, therefore, include other objects in German museums that are of sacred or historical significance to communities in Namibia,” he said.
Meanwhile, the founding president called out the Voigts family to hand over a belt of historical and cultural significance to the Ovambanderu people. The said traditional belt worn by the late Chief Kahimemua Nguvauva is said to be of significant importance to the Nguvauva clan.
“I am reliably informed that Gustav Voigts was the soldier who was tasked to disarm the late Chief Kahimemua and he took off from him a sacred traditional belt of historical significance, which he presented to one of the museums in Germany for safekeeping, but later went back to collect it,” said Nujoma, according to a Namibia Press Agency report.
The Statesman made the call on Sunday during the 122nd commemoration of the Battle of Otjunda at Okahandja. Chief Nguvauva and other chiefs were executed by the German Schutztruppe on 13 June 1896.
Nujoma said giving back the belt would serve as a token of reconciliation and goodwill.
The belt, according to the advisor to the Ovambanderu Traditional Authority, Ueriurika Nguvauva, was among several items donated to the Braunschweig Museum in Germany but was reportedly collected after a certain time by Voigts.
University of Namibia academic, Ellen Namhila, gave the example of previous successful repatriation of an important historical object - the notebooks of Hendrik Witbooi from a number of different German institutions. The former leader of the Nama people in southern Namibia remains a key figure in Namibian history and his image appears on the national currency.
Namhila expressed that the significance of the Hendrik Witbooi diaries has been recognised, as they are, currently, the only documents from Namibia that have been inscribed on UNESCO’s `Memory of the World’.
Meanwhile, Namibia’s Ambassador to Germany, Andreas Guibeb took the opportunity to inform the symposium that the Linden Museum in Stuttgart had just agreed to return Hendrik Witbooi’s original bible to Namibia.
In 2004, Namhila, and Archivist Werner Hillebrecht petitioned UNESCO for Witbooi’s diary be entered into the Memory of the World Register, a world list of archival and library documentaries of outstanding value. This was granted in 2005, placing Namibia among the four countries inscribed into the compendium of the world documentary register. Between 1884 and 1894, Witbooi resisted German advances at gaining colonial control over Namibia by attempting to forge a united front against the conclusion of "protection treaties".
UNESCO noted Witbooi's insights into the nature of colonialism, about the fundamental difference between conflict with African competitors and with European invaders, his attempts at formulating African legal concepts, and the visionary and poetic power of some of his texts are the qualities that set his letters apart and above the bulk of contemporary and earlier African texts of the same genre.
The UN agency said the texts, written in Cape Dutch - the lingua franca of diplomatic correspondence at the time, and in Nama, include probably the first written formulation of the concept of Pan-Africanism.