Stolen Artifacts From British Colonial Era Return Home to Uganda

image courtesy of T.Ofungi

The Minister of State for the Uganda Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities (MTWA), Hon. Martin Mugarra Bahinduka, received 39 significant and priceless artifacts at Entebbe International Airport on June 8 returned from the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology-Cambridge. They were stolen from Uganda in the 1890s and early 1900s by British colonial administrators and missionaries.

Escorted by ministry officials including the Acting Commissioner for Uganda Museums, Jaqueline Nyiracyiza Besigye; Professor Derek Peterson from the University of Cambridge UK; and Fred Bamwesigye, Director General of the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority. Mugarra hailed this milestone as just the beginning of a journey to repatriate many more artifacts scattered across the globe.

Announcing the development, an elated Eunice Kansiime Tworekirwe, Principal Public Relations Officer of the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities, said: “What an exhilarating moment for us at the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities! Today, we proudly received 39 significant artifacts returned from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge.

“These priceless treasures, taken from Uganda in the 1890s and early 1900s by British colonial administrators, anthropologists, and missionaries, are finally home. Among  the most consequential are a historic drum from Bunyoro, brought to Cambridge in 1920, and  a collection of balongo-(sacred twins) that had important ritual purposes in the Buganda kingdom.”

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The repatriation was funded by a $100,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and led by Professor Derek Peterson from the University of Michigan (History, Afro American, and African Studies) who was the principal investigator for the mission codenamed  “Repositioning the Uganda Museum.” He worked with a team of colleagues assisted by Makerere University Kampala graduate students to research on the historical background of, and to repatriate the objects from, the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) to the Uganda Museum in Kampala.

The project is one small step in the larger campaign to undo the legacy of collecting in the colonial era.

Peterson added, “We want them to live again, not only as museum pieces but as part of Uganda’s public culture.

“Bringing these items back and attracting those from around the diaspora to see them on the continent will also help people come to terms with their own collective memory, celebrate their rich histories and identities, and be able to pass this on to future generations.

“These objects have been dislocated both in space and in time,” added Peterson. “Colonial-era collectors took them out of Ugandans’ hands and made them into specimens of ethnic identity. We want to put them back into the hands of the people who made them meaningful, to open up dialogues about the onward course of families, clans, and professions.”

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In the late-nineteenth century, British missionary John Roscoe was in the Kingdom of Buganda, part of present-day Uganda, collecting ethnographic objects and operating partly under the direction of the MAA.

 Once the curating is complete, they will be repositioned at the Uganda Museum which is East Africa’s oldest museum established by the protectorate 1908 ironically to preserve and present Uganda’s cultural and natural heritage. The team is also  working with the Buganda Kingdom to return them to the tombs from which they were taken, a deep ritual significance in Buganda.

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Tony Ofungi - eTN Uganda

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