I wrote this article at the invitation of “KOSMOPOLIS – INTERKULTURELLE MAGAZINE FROM BERLIN” (LINK to de.wikipedia. You find the text translated at the bottom of the page) for the No. 41-42/2022 anniversary issue 1997-2022 Subject: “ZU NEUEN UFERN” (‘TRAVELS TO FOREIGN SHORES’)
TIME JOURNEY TO THE CAMEROON COAST ON AN OLD MODEL BOAT
Isn’t there a “new departure” taking place around us? The themes are “Decolonize…” or “Restitution”, whatever an “old white man” might think of it. But the “new shores” are always shores that mean nothing new to other people, just home.
Church Crosses on an African object
I collect “tribal art” from Central Africa. I avoided Cameroon. I got established contacts at the flea market. I did not know this dealer. The clip-on boat was obviously not traditional. I hesitated for a long time, but the combination of ancient European fashion, church crosses and mysterious snakes, birds and people fighting with them did not let me go.
A month later I received a fairytale-like email from Djebalé in the Cameroon River (Wuri, Wouri):
The people of the Wouri River live from fishing before and after the discovery by the Germans. The villagers witnessed the arrival of the Germans in a large pirogue (canoe, dugout). They made this dugout in memory of this discovery, as they had never seen a boat so ornate as the one in the photo. The pirogue carries pilot figures. The front profile on the pirogue symbolizes the first church that the Germans built. The Sawa are now 90% Christian. This is how the pirogue enters the stage of the Sawa in Cameroon. The canoe comes from the village of Djebalé, an island in the Douala district. Canoes are the only means of transport between the city and the island. The canoe is a symbol of peace and coexistence, used in the grand traditional Sawa ceremonies. It’s a century old. The two tail coat wearers represent the heads of Djebalé, the snakes the sea spirits. The remaining men ensure the safety of the bosses. The island was discovered by the Germans in 1800. I won’t fail to convey your regards to the chief. He asks me to greet you too and wishes you a lot of courage for the future.
The presentation was charming and I already had some research experience. So in November 2019 I embarked on a virtual journey that has already lasted over two years. This is not only due to the pandemic blocking long-distance travels /47/, but also to instructive detours and positive feedback from many museums that have such objects in their depots, some also on their website.
Right from the start I got an idea of Douala in the books of Eric de Rosny (e.g. “The eyes of my goat”, 1999), René Bureau (“Le peuple du fleuve”, 1996) and Ronald Daus (“Banlieue 2: Freiräume (‘freedom’) in Aussereuropa: Rio de Janeiro, Douala, Bangkok“, 2003).
The traditional trading center of the Duala in the Bay of Cameroon has good transport connections, but is situated in the “damp armpit of Africa”, four degrees above the equator and around twenty kilometers from the Atlantic in the middle of a mangrove delta with impenetrable primeval forests… The view reaches hardly the opposite bank of the Wouri, for the area lies almost continuously in a grey, thick, hot haze. The humidity is enormous, a paradise for fever mosquitoes. This is where the migration of the Duala from the Congo region came to a halt around four hundred years ago. They pushed aside the resident Bassa inland and spread along the river courses. From then on they lived ‘from the water’. Aided by the ‘impervious’ and often ‘uninhabited’ jungle that surrounded them, they established a ‘barrier trade’, allowing no one to advance upstream or downstream. Their centrally located villages developed into a prosperous community called Douala by the 18th century. The coastal Duala bought goods and slaves from interior groups such as the Bakweri, Mungo, Bassa and Bakoko and sold them to the Europeans, first on their sailing ships, then on ‘hulks’ (ship hulls) anchored on the shore. In return, the Europeans supplied alcohol, gunpowder, weapons, mirrors, shoes, textiles and tools. The Duala left farming to their enslaved neighbors. (Ronald Daus, “Banlieue 2”, p. 166, 167) The Duala built an infinite number of pirogues, and no one was too vain to do that. In the tangle of water-rich deltas and inland passages on the coast, the canoe was the first choice of transport. In our days, Manu Dibango, the famous saxophonist from Douala, made the canoe a metaphor for his worldwide success: My father came in a pirogue from a village forty kilometers from Douala, and later I set off in a larger pirogue and have again and again crossed the oceans… /48/
The Duala were known for their excellent trading links with the nearby Niger Delta. In a typical world atlas, the closely interwoven coasts usually appear divided by two separate maps of west and central Africa. Amazingly, the “Nigerians” were the more active and culturally influential trading partners, as noted in Rosalinde G. Wilcox‘s essay “Commercial Transactions and Cultural Interactions from the Delta to Douala and Beyond” (in “African Arts” 2002-1). Calabari, Ijo, and Ijebu-Yoruba offered attractive cults and artistic styles to the Duala. But all had the same problem: mastering the risks and therefore pleasing the unpredictable spirits of the river and the sea.
The worship of “Mami Wata” is well known from Sierra Leone down to the Congo. The Duala call them jengu (plural mengu): The mengu rule the water world, they are the lords of fish, manatees and crabs, also of raffia palms that grow in the currents. They are present in dangerous currents, on hidden rocks, at waterfalls, in dense bushes and over shoals. On Djebalé you will find true experts of the jengu cult. As with humans, the mengu of the interior are considered to be the weakest /49/ and those of the sea are said to be stronger than those of the rivers. They rule the storms, start tornadoes, and when the sea is calm they are busy with the people. Because these beings show exceptional adaptability, one must behave in a complex and wise manner. When capsized boats and their goods are floating in the water, it means that mengu store them where they are. Personal mengu as “guardian angels” avenge disobedience with drowning or long hours of possession. (René Bureau, “Le peuple du fleuve”, Paris 1996 – My Résumé).
War canoes and regattas
With their legendary war canoes, the leading Duala clans defended their privileged position well into the 19th century. But it was precisely under the growing pressure from their servants and the imperialist sea powers that the rivalry among the clan chiefs reached its climax. After 1840, English Baptist missionaries were the vanguard of the new era. The leading clans saw their chances for the future in being at the forefront of modernization, they converted to Christianity and sent their offspring to missionary schools and their successors to Europe. Whose partner did they want to be? The answer seemed clear until a handful of representatives of the German Reich in 1884 managed to forestall the hesitant British with a formal offer. Max Buchner (1846-1921), ship’s doctor, experienced traveler to Africa and then provisional representative of the German Reich in Douala for almost a year, published in Germany in 1887 one of these then popular field reports on the promotion of colonization. No matter how negative his judgment of the proud and arrogant elite in Douala was, he was very enthusiastic about their rowing regattas. Original sound (Google, revised):
The knightly sense for martial exercises shows even more brilliantly in the canoe sport of the Dualla. It has already been said that the traffic of Cameroon moves almost exclusively on the river and its ramifications. This circumstance has led to a training of the natives in nautical science, which must arouse our admiration. The slender canoes of the Dualla, the most imposing of which are up to 25 meters long and up to 1.70 meters wide at the strongest swelling, which is always considerably behind the center, are without a doubt among the finest vessels on earth. and the skill with which they are handled surpasses anything else one is accustomed to see and hear of coastal tribes /50/, save alone the rowing of the Kru boys (….) Rowed by fifty to sixty men, they dart across the surface of the water with the speed of a steamer, and despite their length and narrowness they turn with an almost astounding precision. (….) A race of several larger Duala canoes offers a spectacle of an ethnographic kind that there are not many to enjoy around the world. The canoes are then usually festively decorated. On the front of the beak they then usually carry a magnificent-looking, more or less complicated carving, which customary represents an immensely naive intertwining of all possible animals. If this main ornament is missing, a fresh green bush of leaves is in its place. To complete the decoration there are also two fancy flags, with the owner’s name on the back, and a small one in front, imitating our jack. Fully manned, the light vehicle dives so deep that apart from the gracefully tapered ends, which rise higher, only a very narrow board remains dry, and one sees nothing more of the body than the rhythmically working double row of the Crew sticking their pointed oars into the water or lifting them up again in a powerful arc. In the middle stands the commandant with some bizarre, archaic feather headdress, as was the custom in the past, and in front of him sits the eagerly pounding drummer. The rowers accompany the rhythm of their work with a martial chant. (…) Dense crowds of enthusiastic spectators follow on the beach, eagerly taking sides with the canoe of their village, and if victory falls to whoever announces it by raising their oars, their triumph knows no measure. Shrill screams fill the air on all sides, one quarrels furiously with opponents who claim to have been cheated, and not infrequently there are beatings again.” (Buchner, 1887, p. 35ff.)
Buchner’s description explains why stately models of such boats, up to three meters long, were extremely attractive for the new ethnographic museums and for private collectors in Europe and America, especially when they reproduced the models in a naturalistic manner in proportion and decoration. Boat races are said to have even taken place in Carl Hagenbeck’s Hamburg zoo. When rowers in military uniform and colonial flags on the model boats symbolized the loyalty of the new subjects, that was probably what the customers wanted.
From an ethnographic perspective, Buchner did not take the boat models seriously: “there are also often canoe models, up to one meter long and more, with rowing figures, which nowadays are only made as export items for the passengers of the steamers and therefore have little ethnographic value.” (ibid., p.41) After a few years, they disappeared without regret into the already overcrowded museum depots, with a few exceptions. It took until the 21st century for so-called stylistic “contact zones” and their “hybrid” creations to receive art-historical recognition. /52/ Authors who are close to the Art trade still rave about “style centers” and underestimate the “peripheries”.
The Duala, who had already been ‘modernized’ before the colonial period, had poor chances: their artistic tradition is the product of complex local, regional and external relationships, namely with the ‘Cameroon grasslands’, Cross River, Niger Delta and the Europeans. “What Europeans acquired from the middle of the 19th century on carved masks, chairs, paddles, boat prows or other objects was <Duala>, although it is not always clear whether the designation refers to the ethnic group, refers to the place of the same name or all groups residing in the region at the time of the collection. And what entered European collections was accompanied by sparse, vague, and contradictory documentation”. (Rosalinde Wilcox)
Politically, the fate of the “contact zone” has been less benign. Colonial and post-colonial demarcations and border shifts have fueled long-term social and political conflicts with discriminated minorities not only in Cameroon. Currently, the hidden civil war in the two “Anglophone” western provinces of Cameroon seems almost insoluble. The two official languages play less of a decisive role than the contrasting educational and legal systems adopted by the French and British. More about that on my blog.
Duala canoes and their stories
Over a few dozen boat models and decorated boat prows are now available with illustrations and information, thanks to the support of museum curators in Chicago (“Field Museum of Natural History”) and South Bend, Indiana (“Snite Museum of Art”), in Boston (“Peabody Essex”), Stockholm, Kraków, Bremen, Hannover, Dresden, Frankfurt am Main, München, Wien, Bern and Basel. Leo Frobenius provided a starting point with an illustrated essay from 1897 “The Cameroon Ship’s Beak and its Motives”. The Field Museum provided me with documentation on the acquisition of a large collection of Cameroonian art – mostly from the famous “Grasslands”. The collection came from the fund of the company J.F.G.Umlauff in Hamburg. The sum transferred was 27,000 US dollars (1925). However, the great boat model was so insignificant in this deal that it was not even mentioned in the contract and wintered in the depot for decades. /53/
Who would have thought that around the turn of the century the company J.F.G.Umlauff, founded in 1868 and affiliated with the shipping company Woermann and Carl Hagenbeck, supplied the whole “civilized world” with exotic objects and hoarded, assembled and processed tens of thousands of objects. World exhibitions, museums, variety shows, “Völkerschauen” and even film studios were the customers. According to the company accounts, the range of articles traded ranged from zoologica, conchiles and ethnographica of various sizes, textures and numbers to anthropologica of all kinds (skulls, bones, brains and fetuses in alcohol). This meant that, apart from plants, just about anything that a traveler brought from a distant country could be bought up by the J.F.G.Umlauff company and resold; often also live animals, which were then passed on to the Hagenbeck company or, if they did not survive the transport as in many cases, were used by the zoological department anyway. the buyers of these various things were museums and scientific institutes of the corresponding disciplines as well as private collectors all over the world, up to the Dalai Lama at that time.” (Summary from Thode-Aurora “The J.F.G.Umlauff family and their companies – Ethnographica dealers in Hamburg” Berichte. .. Neue Folge 22, 1992, pp. 147-48 – in German)
With such an address, one logically loses hope of ascertaining provenance. However, the Umlauff company valued documentation. In museums, too, many index cards contain the name of the consignor or art patron, and some also some biographical key data. Colonial history and provenance research are now booming and provide information. Apparently, national Wikipedia pages also benefit from this. Any proper name can become a key, /54/ as “collectors” were often also actors on colonial stages. One learns almost nothing about the object this way, but – unlike in an abstract showcase – its original surroundings and the background come to life.
One learns almost nothing about the object this way, but – unlike in the showcase – its original surroundings and the background come to life. That’s what I’ve focused on in recent blogs. It includes, for example, a previously unknown Polish national hero, two Swedish lower-class sons who are trying their luck on Mount Cameroon, a globetrotter and patron from Boston, a prospective craniologist (skull researcher) from Basel and the later museum director Buchner in Munich. I meet provisionally installed officials, but also missionaries, agents, auxiliary personnel of that time and last but not least Cameroonians from a bitter era in their country which still is marked by the ongoing consequences of the colonial conquest. African collectors of my generation are also represented, by an American engineer and a French publisher, collectors with an independent main job and a limited budget.
In the end, the provenance of my boat model described at the beginning could be correct. Ironically, the dating “1800” would be a substantial statement. I still don’t know: Did the dealer talk to the boss on Djebalé or did his information just come from the internet?
Josiane Kouagheu, blogger from Douala, visited the island by canoe-taxi in 2016. She reported: The village leader, Isaac Dibobe, welcomes you to the Chefferie. You must add ‘Your Majesty’. Like a storyteller by the fire, he will tell you about his island, which he has known for more than half a century, and show you around. He says: “In 1800 the Germans discovered Djebalé during their presence in Cameroon.” The name of the island comes from a mermaid named Djobalè, with whom, according to legend, the first black man to set foot on the island lived and raised several children. (https://josianekouagheu.mondoblog.org/2013/01/20/djebale-une-ile-oubliee-derriere-douala/)
“1800” – wasn’t that the magic number for “the good old days” on the Cameroon coast?
At the end of the journey, I would like to draw the attention of interested readers to my web project with a dozen articles. They are illustrated, documented, linked and provided with detailed references. Link: www.detlev.von.graeve.org – Search the Title: “Duala Project 2019-22“.
“Kosmopolis” – de.wikipedia translated:
Kosmopolis – Intercultural Magazine from Berlin is a German culture magazine. It has been edited by Ronald Daus, Claudia Opitz-Belakhal and Luis Pulido Ritter since 1997. It is published by Babylon Metropolis Studies Ursula Opitz Verlag (the publisher publishes, among other things, academic studies on metropolitan research, research on colonialism, travel essays and literary titles). The magazine is published once or twice a year, each time with a main topic, e.g. “Fashion and Murder”, “Fantasy & Naked Truth”, “The Blessing of Atheism”, “Lonely Cosmopolitans” or “Literary Arctic & Antarctica”. The international authors also include bestselling authors such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, the Mexican Homero Aridjis, Chinese dissidents such as Yang Liang and the Nobel Prize winners for literature Herta Müller and Mario Vargas Llosa. Another focus in terms of content is the reviews of new publications on the international book market, especially art, architecture and design monographs, but also literary works and non-fiction books with an intercultural context. (….) web links through: ‘Babylon Metropolis Studien’ and ‘ Ursula Opitz Verlag Babylon Metropolis’