In 19th century Douala, these elaborately carved staffs served as visible emblems of power
In the flourishing trade center, influential men recognize each other by means of these status symbols
It is likely that they were also present during the assembly, at which the Cameroonians decided to initiate peaceful protests against the violence of the German colonial regime
Many Cameroonians had to pay for this resistance with their lives. To this day, their stories remain largely unknown in Germany
Date of production: before 1887
Formerly: Collection Weber-Woermann (1887)
Acquisition by museum: purchased from Julius Konietzko in 1933
114 x 4 x 4.5 cm
These carvings depict animals and scenes from everyday life. The figure holds a fly whisk in its hand, a symbol of power.
Symbols of power
This story begins in Cameroon during the second half of the 19th century. At the time, the Bell and Akwa families were the most influential trading dynasties in the region surrounding the port of Douala. Several trading companies from Hamburg were trying to secure their position in the market to bring products such as palm oil, ivory and rubber to Europe.
King Akwa’s real name was Dika Mpondo and the name of his rival, King Bell, was Ndumb´a Lobe. They competed for trade with the Europeans. Day-to-day life in Douala was very much dependent on water. In the harbour and on the rivers, people and merchandise were transported on versatile dugout canoes. On holidays, races were held with elaborately decorated longboats.
In 1884, the royal houses and trading companies in Douala signed a treaty with the Germans. This treaty is considered to mark the beginning of colonialism in Cameroon. Soon after, the Cameroonians were forced to recognise that the colonialists would continually violate the provisions of this agreement.
The royal families from Douala were well equipped to negotiate with the Germans.
On multiple occasions, their representatives travelled to Hamburg or Berlin in person. They also sent their children to Germany for education. King Bell’s son, Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, for instance, spent several years in southern Germany and spoke perfect German. After his return, his fellow countrymen are said to have teased him for his German accent and for dressing like a European: with a top hat, black tail-coat and walking stick.
The next photo shows Rudolf Duala Manga Bell (right) and Tube Meetom (left) with the Oesterle family, who hosted them during their time in Germany.
The situation in Douala was soon on the verge of escalating. The German colonialists violated the provisions of the treaty of 1884 by extending their trade, but also published plans to segregate the city into a white and a Black quarter. This segregation was enforced through extensive dispossession, a measure which the colonial government justified with racist arguments provided on the basis of so-called tropical medicine and hygiene research. In response, the Cameroonians resorted to their strategy of peaceful opposition by means of political action. For this purpose, they submitted a petition to the German Reichstag in Berlin.
The families Bell, Akwa and others held a great assembly (at which King Akwa likely carried this staff or one similar to it). Together, they decided to put their internal disputes to rest and to join forces in a resistance movement. They did not anticipate that German colonialists would continue to scheme and even resort to outright lies to secure their plans. Under a pretence, Rudolf Duala Manga Bell was accused of high treason. He and other members of the resistance were sentenced to death without a trial and were executed on August 8, 1914.
To this day, the anniversary of the death of Rudolf Duala Manga Bell is commemorated in Cameroon. Artists such as Hervé Youmbi dedicate their works to him and tell his story. In Germany, on the other hand, only very few people know who he was and no official apology has ever been submitted for the wrongdoing committed during the time of German colonialism from 1884 until 1914. The exhibition “Hey, Hamburg, do you know Duala Manga Bell?” (2021-23) at the MARKK presents aspects of his story, of the resistance movement and of the consequences of colonial violence that have lasted to this day. After closing in Hamburg, the exhibition is planned to be shown in Douala.