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Bunyoro’s continued push to return stolen artefacts from Britain

Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom has expressed surprise at the continued British hesitance to return priceless artefacts taken from the kingdom by colonial officials.

One of the artefacts was a nine-legged wooden throne known as Nyamyaro, a traditional treasure and symbol of royal authority which was snatched from the palace.

All kings including the legendary Omukama Cwa II Kabaleega sat on the stool to proclaim the assumption of power.

According to the Bunyoro folklore, Nyamyaro was sacred as it is still today that it could never be left unattended to at any one time.

At least two of the king’s wives stayed with it, sleeping on either side of the stool at night.

John Kamara, an elder, says the nine-legged stool is a source of pride to the current generation and a reminder of the accomplishments of their forefathers.

The others are royal spears, bungles, crowns, royal dishes, bracelets, royal drums and a surgical knife that was used for Caesarean section, a feat achieved by the Banyoro before the rest of the world reportedly thought of it.

John Apollo Rwamparo, a senior member of the ruling Babiito Clan who also doubles as Kingdom Minister for Tourism, told The Albertine Journal that majority of the 300 artefacts were stolen after the overthrow and exile of Kabaleega following a fierce but ultimately unsuccessful resistance to colonisation.

He said the thief was Colonel Henry Colville who looted the artefacts in 1894 when he was the commissioner of Uganda.

They (artefacts) are being kept at the Pitt River museum at the Oxford University in the UK.

Yolamu Nsamba, the former Principal Private Secretary to the Omukama, now Vice Chairperson for the Royal Commission, who visited Pitt Rivers Museum with Omukama Solomon Gafabusa Iguru, said that all the kings after Kabaleega have not been properly installed because of the absence of the royal stool.

“There is no King without a throne,” he emphatically stated.

Aliguma Ahabyona Akiiki, the programme/communications coordinator of Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU), an organisation which promotes the recognition of culture, said the colonial era theft and refusal to hand back the artefacts infringes on the Banyoro cultural rights.

“The rights to enjoyment of cultural and natural heritage, preservation and access, are being deprived of them despite being widely recognised in human rights instruments,” he said.

He called on the kingdom officials to construct a royal museum and renovate cultural tombs and other cultural infrastructure to boost tourism and preserve the existing heritage.

Unyielding rapprochement

On March 24, 2013, the Omukama while presiding over the Bunyoro Convocation in Hoima City asked for the return of the artefacts.

Omukama Iguru followed up with a letter to the director of the museum in November 2013 expressing his pleasure that the museum’s collections were well cared for as he ramped up his rapprochement.

He informed the British that he had instructed one of his ministers to initiate negotiations on collaboration and possible return of the artefacts.

At the height of the debate in 2014, a British high commission official in Kampala claimed that the artefacts were donated to the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum by Kanyarusoke Nyabongo Akiiki, a Prince from the neighbouring kingdom of Tooro, who wrote his Doctorate on Ugandan religion at the University in the 1930s.

Jeremy Coote, Joint Head of collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum replied to the letter on Christmas in 2015, welcoming the possibility of discussing the return.

However, Coote said that the stool held by them was collected in 1919 to 1920 and is not the stool claimed to have been looted by Colville in 1894.

Other reports claim that most of the Bunyoro objects were collected by Rev. John Roscoe from 1919 to 1920 during the Mackie ethnological expedition and then donated to the University by Roscoe in 1922.

In 2016, Coote in an interview with the Guardian-UK newspaper, repeated his belief that there has been a misunderstanding about the identity of the items in display at the museum.

“A ceremonial stool held by the museum was not, a royal throne allegedly looted from the Bunyoro Kingdom in 1894, but another given to the collection in 1922 to improve understanding of the culture and lifestyle of the kingdom,” Coote was quoted as saying.

The last engagements over the artefacts were in 2018 when the kingdom penned a letter to the British High Commissioner.

Rwamparo says that the commissioner’s reply lacked a straightforward answer.

“Pitt Rivers Museum is an independent institution that it was appropriate that any potential solution would be museum-led,” The British High Commissioner wrote in a letter dated September 3, 2018.

Rwamparo insists that the artefacts that were displayed were not donated by Akiiki because “one cannot donate what is not his, the alleged donor is from Tooro kingdom not Bunyoro.”

Rwamparo said since the priceless treasures were taken during the colonial era without the consent of the kingdom, they have to be unconditionally returned.

Some pundits say the British feel that if they return the artefacts, it will be taken as acknowledgement of responsibility for the historical injustices committed against the Banyoro and ignite the issue of paying reparations.

The Kingdom has in the past involved the government but in most cases the responses, according to Kingdom officials, are usually lukewarm.

In a letter by Finance Minister, Matia Kasaija to the British High Commission in Uganda dated August 1, 2018, the minister asked for resumption of negotiations and collaboration on possible return of the objects.

“Carefully research into what happened to the objects confiscated as well as those held in other museums,” Kasaija’s letter reads in part.

Increased calls for Western countries to hand back historical spoils from their private collections and museums has seen some African countries succeed in securing their return, a thing that continues to elude Bunyoro kingdom.

In November last year, the U.K returned six artefacts looted by British troops, 126 years ago from Benin City in Nigeria.

The objects included two 16th-century Benin Bronze plaques taken when the royal palace was ransacked by the British troops.

Germany in June last year returned artefacts taken from Cameroon, Namibia and Tanzania.

Of all the European countries with stolen artefacts, France was the first to return 26 objects that were on display at Quai Branly Museum in Paris to the country of Benin.

Huge crowds gathered in Cotonou, Benin’s largest City and economic capital to welcome back the historic treasures.

3 replies on “Bunyoro’s continued push to return stolen artefacts from Britain”

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