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19.10.2006

Mpondo´s Reply 

Mpondo Akwa´s entrance on the first day of the trial made a rich impression on the press. The Hamburger Fremdenblatt described Mpondo as "elegantly dressed according to the newest fashion," and "very skilled in German." The Altonaer Nachrichten called him an "educated person [Mensch] with exotic, but not uncomfortable, mannerisms." The court room was filled with onlookers, including many of Mpondo´s noble acquaintances, some of whom would act as character witnesses: Baron Engelbert von Landsberg zu Steinfurt bei Münster in Westfalen, Graf Hans Praschma zu Falkenberg in Schlesien, and Graf Arthur Strachwitz zu Grossreichenau in Niederschlesien.

The interest of this case, as demonstrated by the large audience and the subsequent attention of the press, probably went beyond the thrill seekers who attended to watch the curious pageantry of an African prince appearing before a German court. Indeed, supporting or vilifying Mpondo was to become somewhat af a cause célèbre among various political factions and many of the political and legal issues of colonialism - especially the contradictions exposed by traveling Africans - were raised by the events leading up to the trial. How people attempted to negotiate these contradictions was closely linked to their beliefs about the meaning of race to law and modernity. Dr. Levis defense speech is aimed at controlling the way in which Mpondo´s "color" and "culture," his blackness and his Africanness, were to influence decisions about his guilt or innocence, both inside the courtroom and in the wider public arena.

The difficulty of overcoming racist arguments which posited Mpondo a priori as a guilty man must have become quickly evident. The prosecution lowered the trial to racist name-calling. For example, one witness for the prosecution, a representative of the Woermann Company, [The Woermann Company was a Hamburg firm that had a monopoly on shipping between Germany and the colonies. It had played a crucial role in the development of Duala-German trade relations in the nineteenth century.] testified that all "Niggers" (this is the actual term reported in the Fremdenblatt) were lying, lazy, disloyal and untrustworthy. A witness from the J. Braun firm also accused all "Niggers" of lying. [Mpondo reportedly stepped in at these times and asked the witnesses not to make such blanket generalizations.] The prosecution sought to elaborate on the prejudices of its witnesses. According to the prosecuting attorney, Mpondo had not worked since his arrival in Hamburg in 1902; he wasted his time in dance halls and courted women; and he made it a habit to live off of other people´s money, without the intention of ever paying them back.

After being read the charges against him, Mpondo was given time to reply. He used his time to outline the history of Duala-German relations up to 1905, beginning with the treaty signed between Duala notables and Gustav Nachtigal in 1884. He emphasized his noble title and lineage, particularly that of his father, and explained how and why English traders had given Duala merchants the titles "King" and "Prince." His right to the title, he explained, was generally recognized in Cameroon.

This response from the defendant transgressed a golden rule of Enlightenment legal practice - that the law be administered equitably regardless of status. Pointing out that aristocratic privilege should have no meaning to modern law, the judge apparently interjected at this point that for all he cared, Mpondo could be the "Emperor [Kaiser] of Africa," what was at issue in the court was whether or not Mpondo committed fraud both by accumulating debt and by using a noble title. Mpondo responded that he had not.

Mpondo was probably trying to address the stereotypes he knew existed in the courtroom by underscoring his noble heritage as means of establishing his credibility. Although it was necessary for the court to uphold the rhetoric of liberal universalism, Mpondo Akwa´s “difference” made his noble pedigree an important means of obtaining the status of human being which entitled him to equal treatment in the first place.[ For a detailed discussion of this legal problem, see: Uday S. Mehta. 1997. Liberal Strategies of Exclusion. In: Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 59-86.] The emphasis on titles such as “Prince” and “King” in this context can be seen as a way of translating high status to a discursive system that constantly threatened to relegate all Africans to the position of, to quote Dr. Levi, "an insignificant little mayor of a small village."

As was discussed earlier, the terms “King” and ”Prince” can be seen as linguistic markers of a shared social space between European and Duala traders, and the product of an attempt to negotiate economic and political alliances during a time in which Duala notables controlled the coast. The question then becomes not - as it was in the trial - whether Mpondo was “in fact” a prince, but rather in what way he was a prince - what this meant in Douala, and what this could mean for Duala- German relations. In fact, one could argue that the whole intellectual architecture of the Akwa protest against the colonial administration of Cameroon is encapsulated within the convoluted issue of the meaning and legitimacy of their noble titles, inasmuch as within these titles lay a fundamental difference in the way Germans and Duala saw the meaning of German overlordship and the rights this accorded German administrators in Duala territory.[ This argument is outlined in my "Both African and German." For a different approach, see Leonhard Harding´s introduction in this volume.]

MPUNDU AKWA: The Case of the Prince from Cameroon, the Newly Discovered Speech for the Defense by Dr.M. Levi
Von Joeden-Forgey, Elisa & Levi, Dr. M. (Eds.)
Notes, bib, vii, 137pp, GERMANY. LIT VERLAG, 3825873544

 

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