King Badu Bonsu II, King Badu Bonsu II head, King Badu Bonsu II dutch ghana
Rob Keeris/AP
Honoring the spirit of King Badu Bonsu II by pouring Dutch gin on the floor during a ceremony at
the Dutch Foreign Ministry in The Hague, July 23, 2009.

Return of Severed Head Revives Gruesome Colonial Past

July 27, 2009 12:00 PM
by Jill Marcellus
The Dutch returned the disembodied head of a Ghana king, reviving memories of a grisly colonial past.

Head Returned in Tense Ceremony

In a ceremony at The Hague last week, the Dutch government officially restored an executed Ahanta chief’s head to Ghanaian tribal leaders, months after Ghana demanded its return.

Severed from the body of King Badu Bonsu II in 1838, the head hid preserved in a jar of formaldehyde in the Leiden University Medical Center’s anatomical wing for 170 years. It is believed that the Dutch decapitated the chief in retaliation for the deaths of two of their emissaries. Dutch officials issued a statement insisting that King Bonsu had been “handed over by his own nation,” according to the BBC. Arthur Japin, an author who came across the Ahanta chief’s head while researching a novel, believes that Maj. Gen. Jan Verveer brought the head back to the Netherlands at the request of a phrenologist. Phrenology, a pseudoscience popular in the 19th century, attempted to scientifically determine people’s characters by the lumps and structures of their skulls.

Professor Addo-Fening described to the BBC the head’s significance for the chief’s tribe, explaining that, “When people die and their bodies are not found and buried, it leaves a lingering fear that they will not find rest with their ancestors until this is done.”

Members of the Ahanta tribe, The Associated Press reports, sprinkled Dutch gin over the Foreign Ministry’s floor in honor of their former chief’s spirit. Despite Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen’s insistence on the two countries’ “mutual desire to lay to rest episodes in … history that were unfortunate and shameful,” the Ahanta chief’s descendants remained angry, especially amid confusions over the transfer, according to the AP. Current Ahanta chief Nana Etsin Kofi II declared that, “We, the Ahanta, are not happy at all.” Leading the ceremony, Nana Kwekwe Darko III added that, “It is because of the injustice meted out to our people that our great king, who was fighting for his people, was murdered.”

The Gold Coast: Centuries of Imperialism

With its extensive mineral wealth, Ghana, or the Gold Coast, was the first place in sub-Saharan Africa to attract European traders. In 1482, the Portuguese built the Gold Coast’s first permanent trading fort, the still-standing Elmina Castle. Although the government of Ghana reports that the area exported about 10 percent of the world’s gold supply by 1600, the gold trade rapidly gave way to the slave trade over the course of the 17th century.

According to Philip Curtin, a slave trade scholar cited by the Library of Congress, roughly 6.3 million slaves were sent to North and South America from West Africa. To this day, Ghana’s infamous Door of No Return, the spot where many shackled Africans last glimpsed the continent before boarding slave ships, stands as a monument to Ghana’s gruesome past.

With the new trade came new European traders, including the Dutch, the English, the Danish and the Swedish. The Dutch were a strong early presence, conquering Elmina Castle in 1642 and expanding their presence in the 1700s through the Dutch West India Company. During the 19th century, Britain became the dominant Gold Coast power, and finally expelled the Dutch in 1872 with the purchase of Elmina Castle. In 1874 the British declared their coastal protectorate the Gold Coast Colony, after having used hostility between tribes to expand their influence. The British continued to fight the powerful Asante tribe until 1902, the U.S. State Department explains, when they finally established control over that region.   

In 1957, Ghana, the first sub-Saharan site of European trading, likewise became the first sub-Saharan country to declare independence from a colonial power.

Related Topic: British museums repatriate colonial remains

Many European institutions have found themselves in predicaments similar to that of the Leiden University museum. Displaying artifacts and human remains captured from other nations during the imperial period, European museums are now under fire to return them.

In 2005, the British passed a law to allow “the repatriation of ancestral remains,” Reuters reported. Under this law, Aberdeen University in Scotland decided to relinquish some of its Maori collections. The exhibits included nine preserved heads, which were returned to New Zealand, according to the BBC. The museum’s curator, Neil Curtis, explained that, “They are no longer objects, they are people.”

Later that year, Britain’s Natural History Museum agreed to return the remains of 17 Tasmanian aboriginals to Australia. The aboriginal bones, like the Maori heads, were brought to Britain in the 19th century. 

The British law, however, does not apply to artwork and other artifacts that were taken by imperialist explorers. The British have long refused to return the Elgin Marbles, statues taken from the Parthenon in the 1880s, to Greece. The controversy recently revived when the Greek government finished building a new Acropolis Museum, which they hoped could house their ancient artifacts. The British Museum would only consent to a temporary loan.

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