A German museum was set to announce on Friday that it would restitute to Namibia a key 15th-century navigation landmark erected by Portuguese explorers, as part of Berlin’s efforts to face up to its colonial past.
Placed in 1485 by Diego Cao on the western coast of what is today Namibia, the Stone Cross was once considered to be such an important navigation marker that it featured on old world maps.
In the 1890s, it was removed from its spot on Cape Cross and brought to Europe by the region’s then German colonial masters.
Since 2006, it has been part of a permanent exhibition of the German Historical Museum in Berlin.
But in June 2017, Namibia demanded the restitution of the cross, which stands 3.5 metres (11 feet) tall and weighs 1.1 tonnes.
After holding a symposium in 2018 with African and European experts on the issue, the museum’s supervisory board was due to formally announce on Friday its decision to return the monument.
Germany has pledged to accelerate the return of artefacts and human remains from former African colonies.
On the eve of the planned announcement, Germany’s minister of state for international cultural policies, Michelle Muentefering, said: “The return of cultural objects is an important building stone for our common future with Namibia.”
In a column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the president of the museum’s foundation, Raphael Gross, noted that the Cross “is 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”.
“For the people in Namibia and their cultural and political self-image, it is today of great significance because it stands for the experience of colonial rule from the perspective of those who were subject to it.”
For Gross, a restitution would be an “important gesture” for both Namibia and the museum, which would serve as a “recognition of historical injustice”.
“In this respect, it can act as an intervention that allows a new chapter to be opened up in the consideration of the common history of both Germany and Namibia.”
Berlin ruled what was then called South-West Africa as a colony from 1884 to 1915.
Germany has on several occasions repatriated human remains to Namibia, where it slaughtered tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people between 1904 and 1908.
The German government announced in 2016 that it planned to issue an official apology for the atrocities committed by German imperial troops.
But it has repeatedly refused to pay direct reparations, citing millions of euros in development aid given to the Namibian government.
Beyond the former South West Africa, the German empire also held the colonies of Togoland, now Togo, Kamerun (Cameroon) and Tanganyika (Tanzania), as well as some Pacific islands.