Britain Returns 39 Ugandan Artifacts, More on the Way

Uganda on Sunday received 39 of Uganda’s cultural heritage artifacts that have for over 100 years been kept in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University.

The objects come from all over Uganda. Among them a drum from Bunyoro, sent to Cambridge in 1920. 

The artifacts were originally collected from different parts of the country by British colonial administrators, anthropologists, missionaries, and soldiers as early as the 1890s.

Many of these artifacts were acquired in the early 20th century by the missionary anthropologist John Roscoe, who was closely tied to Cambridge, according to Prof Derek Peterson who has coordinated the return of the items.

“Among the most consequential objects are a collection of balongo–sacred ‘twins’–that had important ritual purposes in Buganda. We are working with the Buganda kingdom to return them to the tombs from which they were taken,” said Peterson

Peterson, a history professor from the University of Michigan, currently working with the Uganda Museum to expand its capacity, says that these artifacts are a significant step towards helping the museum tell a more concrete Ugandan cultural history story, unlike the present which was designed by a colonial mindset, and this is what is being worked on now.

He points out that such items ended up in Britain, as loot because the British curators, missionaries, and officials, were convinced that African cultures were not worthwhile, and belonged to the museum.

“They ended up in Cambridge, because all the ways of life, all the religions, had been devalued, and collectors like John Roscoe, could go around and acquire extraordinarily important items and take them off to Cambridge where they became part of the museum’s collections. Returning them is a way of honouring a past that Ugandans have lost but need to remember, and bring people’s lives back in the focus, and recover.”

The return of these artefacts cost up to USD 100,000, a support that was extended by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, which facilitated the research and transportation of important Ugandan artefacts back to the communities.

While receiving the artefacts, Martin Mugarra, the State Minister for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities stated that the government is in the process of reclaiming all artefacts that were taken from different Ugandan communities by the colonial government between the mid-1800s and 1900s.

The minister added that the repatriation of artefacts is part of the ongoing wave to return what colonial administrators took from Africa. The artefacts which belong to Buganda, Lango, Bunyoro, and Ankole, among others, will be used to further enrich the country’s cultural history and heritage.

Jackline Nyiracyiza, the Commissioner for Museums and Monuments, mentioned that the process of returning these artefacts started in 2019, but was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She adds that Cambridge University still has many Ugandans artefacts, both archeological and ethnographic. The returned artefacts include five human remains of the Balongo (Sacred Twins) vessel acquired from Buganda in 1907 and these will be returned to Wamala tombs where they were picked from.

According to Nyiracyiza, the consignment also has a headdress made of human hair, acquired from Lango in 1937, beautifully decorated pots from Ankole, acquired in the 1920s.

This is the second time Uganda is receiving its cultural heritage artefacts from Cambridge. The first return occurred in July 1962, during the independence celebrations when the Kibuuka Omubaale regalia were repatriated. The Kibuuka showcase at the Uganda Museum is one of the centerpiece artefacts of the museum exhibits.

Before opening repatriated artefacts for public viewing, the commissioner said that the Ministry will first analyze their condition at the Uganda Museum, and later organize an exhibition for Ugandan and foreign visitors to view and celebrate the return of these historical objects from Europe.

Apart from the five objects that will be returned to the Buganda, Nyiracyiza pointed out that the rest will be kept at the Uganda museum, as the main repository of all the Ugandan objects, adding that with time each will be taken back to where they were picked from, after deeming it fit that the communities can carefully handle them.