On Friday 24 July 2009 the pickled head of King Badu Bonsu II was finally returned to the government of Ghana after 170 years by the government of the Netherlands. Preserved in a jar of formaldehyde in a laboratory in the Leiden University Medical Centre, the Ghana government quietly negotiated the release of the chief’s head.
King Badu Bonsu II was chief of the Ahanta ethnic group who are based near the coast of Ghana. The Ahanta were renowned as the first ethnic group to trade with the Portuguese. In 1837, King Badu Bonsu ordered for two Dutch emissaries to be murdered and it is alleged he had their heads cut off. In revenge, the Dutch vowed to avenge the deaths of their compatriots. An Ahanta kinsman was bribed to betray the King and he was captured and hanged in 1838. Europe was in the throes of studying phrenology (a bogus science involving a study of human skulls to purportedly decipher what they say about human personality), so the King’s head was considered a prized artefact by depraved European scientists, including the Dutch.
The Dutch, like many barbaric Europeans at the time, callously and arrogantly disregarded the cultural significance the decapitated body of the King held for his people. Europeans did not consider Africans possessing any culture worthy of protecting let alone promoting because they had come to Africa to bring commerce, civilisation and Christianity, otherwise known as the ‘three Cs’. Eric Odoi-Anim, Ghana’s charge d’affaires in the Netherlands said: ‘Without burial of the head, the deceased will be hunted in the after-life.’
The chief of Ahanta-Boadi, Nana Etsin Kofi II, met the arrival of King Badu Bonsu II as the remains touched down at Kokota International Airport, along with the minister of chieftaincy and culture, Mr Alexander Asum-Ahensah. Libation prayers were offered at the airport by Nana Kweku Darko III, to invoke the spirits of Nana Bonsu and other ancestors of the Ahanta area. A befitting burial to King Badu Bonsu is to be arranged in the near future.
Meanwhile, the return of the head – very much intact by its preservation in formaldehyde – is a significant one in setting right colonial wrongs. Not since the full body cast of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, was transported from France to South Africa in 2002, has a similar event taken place in Africa. In a similar case, the utter degeneracy of the French led them to preserve the brains and genitalia of Saartjie Baartman, who was paraded around London as an exotic performer and died at the young age of 22.
To what extent can the return of King Badu Bonsu’s decapitated head, be seen as part of necessary reparations of possessions owed by Africans lying in the vaults of Western museums? Perhaps this recent return of King Badu Bonsu’s remains should make Africans ask how many other remains lie hidden in Western laboratories unknown to us? It is time for us to reclaim with dignity that which belongs to us.
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* Dr Ama Biney is a Pan-Africanist and scholar-activist who lives in the United Kingdom.