Namibia’s ancient Stone Cross is a 1.1 ton, 3.5 metre (11 foot) stone artefact emblazoned with the Portuguese coat of arms, as well as inscriptions in Portuguese and Latin. It was originally erected in 1486 on the coastline of present-day Namibia by explorer Diogo Cao, to signify Portuguese territorial claims and to serve as a navigational marker.
According to Deutsche Welle news service, the cross’s presence was significant enough that maps of the time, such as Martin Waldseemüller’s world map from 1500, featured its image. It gave rise to the coast’s present-day name, Cape Cross.
The cross came into Germany’s possession in 1893, when Gottlieb Becker ordered that it be removed and sent to Germany, were it was presented to Kaiser Wilhelm II. The kaiser used it to push propaganda regarding the empire’s naval superiority.
Thereafter the object entered the collection of East Germany’s Museum of German History in 1953. After reunification, the cross became part of the German Historical Museum, where it has been on permanent exhibition since 2006.
Similar to other African governments striving for the repatriation of artefacts and remains from its former colonisers, Namibia has been requesting the cross’s return since 2017 in a diplomatic note. After which a symposium on the topic ‘The Pillar of Cape Cross – Colonial Objects and Historical Justice’ took place in the German Historical Museum a year later. More than 350 scientists from various fields of research exchanged views on the handling of colonial objects in museums which apparently fueled the artefacts return.
Germany’s Minister of State for Media and Culture, Monica Gruetters, said in a statement, “The rapprochement with Namibia is clearly and visibly taking place.” She explained that although Germany has had a “blind spot” when dealing with their colonial legacy in Namibia, this restitution is a “clear signal that we want words to be followed by deeds”.
Namibia’s Ambassador to Germany, Andreas Guibeb, was quoted by Deutsche Welle as saying that he sees the return as a “significant progress” which, however, does not end the chapter. “The origin of the column is inseparably connected with the history of Namibia,” said Guibeb. He added that this reconciliation with the colonial era would allow his country to concentrate on its future.
The coat of arms column has been part of the German Historical Museum (DHM) collection in Berlin for decades. The museum indicated that although the object is not an African artwork, it nevertheless highlights how “descendants from Europe and Africa can engage in dialogue that does historical justice” to it. It also acknowledged the “outstanding significance an artefact like this pillar has to the people of Namibia and the special contribution it can make on site in the future to understanding Namibia’s history”.
Echoing these sentiments, Raphael Gross, the president of the museum’s foundation, said in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily newspaper that the return of the object was an “important gesture” and the “recognition of an historical injustice”. Gross called the cross “one of the very few objects that documents the occupation of the country by the Portuguese and with that the slow beginning of colonial rule in present-day Namibia”.
More and more European countries are no longer resisting the repatriation of African artefacts. However, the issue of reparations – as in the case of the German genocide of the Herero and Nama people – continues to be met by resistance and remains an as-yet unattainable goal.