The fight to have ancient African royal heir looms, cultural and religious artefacts and objects of art looted in the colonial era is growing with each passing year, as more communities demand their return to their rightful owners in Africa.
Proudly displayed in far off countries after being carted away is a 700-year-old eight-legged wooden stool, the handiwork of the Bachwezi, the first rulers of Uganda’s ancient Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom between 900 and 1500.
The royal stool is on display at the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum in London, United Kingdom.
According to Apollo Rwamparo, the current second deputy prime minister of the restored Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom, the stool was the kingdom’s official throne for 100 years until 1894 when Britain’s Colonel Henry Colville’s forces fought and defeated King Chwa II Kabalega’s men at the battle of Rukungu, in northern Bunyoro, and took away his royal stool, the symbol of his power.
Known locally as Nyamyaro (Lunyoro for throne), the stool was subsequently taken to England, where it has been ever since. And that’s just one of the 279 artefacts of significant cultural importance to the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom Mr Rwamparo says, that were looted by invading British colonial forces during the numerous skirmishes they had with King Kabalega’s army towards the end of the 19th century.
“Col Colville personally is thought to have looted more than 100 artefacts from Bunyoro, and all of them were taken to England,” Mr Rwamparo says. “But popular artefacts are usually traded, sometimes for as much as £10 million, so some of our artefacts could also be on display in various museums in other European countries, and maybe even in America.”
Some of the culturally important artefacts that were looted from Bunyoro include the royal drum – locally known as Kajumba – which, according to Mr Rwamparo, is estimated to be between 800-900 years old. It is the work of the Bachwezi.
“This drum was so sacred that it was only sounded during the coronation of a new king. I don’t know the museum it is in right now, but it’s one of those artefacts we badly want back in Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom’s palace,” he says.
Other artefacts that were reportedly plundered by Col Colville and his mean include the royal spear, assorted jewellery, rattles, the original flag of the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom, and the royal milk container, according to Mr Rwamparo.
“The milk container is also sacred because of its cultural importance,” Mr Rwamparo says. “Whenever a new king was crowned, he was given milk to drink from that container as a sign that the king was responsible for taking good care of his subjects.”
10-year repatriation battle
For the past 10 years, the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom has been engaged in a campaign to repatriate the artefacts, led by King Solomon Gafabusa Iguru, the reigning monarch and grandson of King Kabalega – the anti-colonial hero who gallantly fought and kept the British at bay for almost two decades.
In 2011, King Iguru travelled to London and visited the Pitt Rivers Museum, where he saw the eight-legged stool – his kingdom’s “instrument of power,” and “over 20 artefacts looted from Bunyoro,” according to Norman Lukumu, the former prime minister of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom and who was part of Mr Iguru’s entourage.
Mr Lukumu told The EastAfrican that the museum was actually willing to have some of the artefacts repatriated.
“They said they would give us some and remain with a few because their ancestors fought for them during gruelling wars in which others lost their lives, but promised to make for us copies of those that would remain behind,” he said.
Pitt Rivers Museum would make up for the withheld artefacts by funding the construction of a museum in Bunyoro, which would be named the Kabalega Education Centre, Mr Lukumu said.
In 2013, Mr Iguru set in motion efforts to have the stool, among other artefacts, repatriated.
“Following my visit to the museum in July 2011, I was pleased to see well-cared for ethnographic and world archaeological collections from all parts of the world,” Mr Iguru wrote in his letter to Pitt Rivers Museum.
“My attention was drawn to the objects collected from Uganda and specifically material collected from Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom, which are on permanent exhibition on the lower gallery of the museum in a display entitled “Rank and Status in Bunyoro.”
In the letter, Mr Iguru said that he had instructed his deputy prime minister, Mr Rwamparo, to initiate negotiations with Pitt Rivers Museum on the repatriation of some of the artefacts – but that his main interest was the eight-legged stool, his throne.
But in its reply to Mr Iguru the Pitt Rivers Museum claimed that the stool they have is different from the one looted by Col Henry Colville in 1894.
Dr Michael O' Hanlon, then director of the museum, said that the stool in his museum was “part of the collection made by the Reverend John Roscoe in Bunyoro in 1919-1920, and is not to be confused with the stool looted by Col Henry Colville in 1894, the whereabouts of which appear to be unknown.”
But Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom maintains that there was only one such stool in Bunyoro, and that it was looted by Col Henry Colville in 1894.
After years of trying to repatriate the artefacts, the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom is now seeking the help of the Ugandan government.
“We are engaging the government of Uganda to help us in this battle. Countries like Cameroon and Nigeria were able to repatriate some of their looted artefacts because of the involvement of their governments,” Mr Rwamparo says.
The Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom’s engagement with the Ugandan government began in 2018 when Mr Iguru reached out to Matia Kasaija, Uganda’s then Finance minister, to help negotiate with the British government in the repatriation of the artefacts. “I have been approached by the royal clan of Bunyoro-Kitara, one of the oldest Kingdoms in Africa which, through His Majesty Dr Solomon Gafabusa Iguru 1, the Omukama (king), communicated to Pitt Rivers Museum in November 2013 regarding the return of the royal throne among other artefacts,” Mr Kasaija said in his 2018 letter to the British High Commission to Uganda.
“The said stool is a symbol of authority, power, and of historical and cultural importance to the kingdom and the people of Bunyoro-Kitara. It was so sacred that it could never be left unattended at any one time, as two of the king’s wives stayed with it and slept by it at night, one on either side. It was indeed jealously guarded and protected.”
Mr Kasaija asked the British High Commission to “seek a meeting with members of the royal clan of Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom to kick-start negotiations and collaborations on the possible return of the above artifacts.”
In his reply to Mr Kasaija, Nicholas Rae, then head of the British High Commission’s political section, said that British museums operate independently from the government, and that it was appropriate that any potential solutions would be museum-led. Still, he promised to pursue the matter with “colleagues in London.”
“All restitution cases bring their own complexities depending on the nature, provenance and ownership status of the objects in question. I have therefore asked colleagues in London to look into this matter and provide an update,” Mr Rae said.
However, three years later Mr Rae is yet to make good on that update. But Mr Rwamparo says the fight is not yet over, and that “we shall resume negotiations as soon as Covid-19 ebbs.”