The pickled head of an African chief murdered by Dutch colonialists almost 200 years ago was on its way back to Ghana yesterday, at the end of a strange voyage through the darkest corners of colonial history.
Preserved in a jar of formaldehyde, the head was discovered gathering dust in a laboratory in the Leiden University Medical Centre by Arthur Japin, a best-selling Dutch author, when he was researching The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, his novel about 19th- century Africa. It had been there since its arrival in the late 1830s from what was then called the Dutch Gold Coast and is today Ghana.
The head belonged to none other than King Badu Bonsu II and on Thursday, the chief's descendants gathered at the Dutch Foreign Ministry for the handing-over ceremony. Dressed in dark robes and with red sashes around their necks, they toasted their hosts in Dutch gin before sprinkling more of the alcohol over the ministry floor in a rite of purification. They then signed a book acknowledging receipt of the head, which was expected to arrive with them in Accra last night on a KLM flight from The Hague.
The ceremony drew a long-delayed line under a bitter episode towards the end of Dutch involvement in what was then known as the Gold Coast, the strip of West Africa plundered by every European colonial power from the 15th century onwards.
When King Badu Bonsu II, hereditary chief of the Ahanta tribe, murdered two Dutch emissaries in 1837, he cut off their heads and displayed them proudly on his throne. The Dutch vowed revenge and sent a punitive expedition with an auxiliary scientific purpose.
A member of the tribe was bribed to betray his chief, the king was duly captured and hanged, and his head removed and sent back to Holland to be studied by a Leiden scientist who was an expert in the long-discredited field of phrenology, the study of human skulls for what they were believed to reveal about personality. The Ahanta, meanwhile, were thrown into despair by the theft of their chief's head.
"Without burial of the head, the deceased will be hunted in the after-life," Eric Odoi-Anim, Ghana's chargé d'affaires in the Netherlands told Associated Press. "He is incomplete. It is also a stigma on his clan, on his kinsmen – and him being a [high-ranking] chief, it is even more serious."
Yesterday Mr Japin, the Dutch novelist, explained how he had helped reunite the chief's head with his body. "I was researching my novel about an Ahanta boy brought to Holland in 1837, and in the process I learned about the head of the king, who had been a friend of the boy," he said.
"I had been looking for the head for more than 10 years because as a novelist you become obsessed with finding out everything possible about your subjects. Finally in 2002 I found it locked away in a dark cupboard where it had been for more than 170 years.
"The staff took it out of the round jar and put it on the laboratory sink for me. It had been turned white by the formaldehyde but it was still life-size and he looked as if he was asleep. I felt, 'this is so wrong, you should go home'."
But the university, says Mr Japin, was strongly opposed to the idea. "It felt like their dark secret," he said. "They still feel today that it should not have gone home. But last November I was invited to a dinner in the presence of the then Ghanaian president, John Kufuor, our Queen Beatrice and other dignitaries in The Hague and I told everyone about the head of the king. After that the Ghanaians began lobbying for its return."
At this week's ceremony, the Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said: "We are here because of our mutual desire to lay to rest episodes in history that were unfortunate and shameful." The descendants of the king are not mollified, however. "I am hurt, angry," said Joseph Jones Amoah, his great-grandson. "My grandfather has been killed."
What will happen to the head in Ghana remains unclear. "I was told that when Badu Bonsu died they didn't want to bury him because the body was incomplete," said Mr Japin. "So instead they hid the body away."
If it can now be located, the correct burial ceremony could finally be performed.
Coast of sorrows: The legacy of greed
*"Discovered" by the Portuguese in the 15th century, what is now Ghana was originally known as the Gold Coast because of its natural wealth.
*Successive waves of Europeans fought for access to its precious metals, ivory and slaves. The Dutch, who arrived after the Portuguese, were eventually bought out by the British.
*The Ahanta, based near the coast, were the first tribe to trade with the Portuguese. But as a descendant of King Badu Bonsu lamented yesterday: "Their friendly and generous nature was taken for weakness. They fought back when they realised the Europeans were up to no good. And despite facing down cannons with bows and arrows, they managed to stand their ground."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies