Tracing Kenya’s colonial roots through war artefacts

Furniture salvaged from the Konigsberg German warship that sank in the Indian Ocean in August 1915,displayed at the Kenya Railways Museum. Inset, the warship that sank. Fredrick Onyango

Among the things you will notice on setting foot at the Kenya Railways Museum is a table that looks deceptively new.

A label on the table reads, “The captain’s table salvaged from the German cruiser ‘Konigsberg’ which was scuttled by its crew in the Rufiji River Estuary during the First World War 1914-1918.”

Around the table are five seats and next is a side-board.

These items belong to a range of many others that were taken out of a German warship that was sunk by British fighters during the First World War and are now distributed among many countries. It is one of the relics of the First World War that Kenya holds on to with pride.

“Kenya is lucky to have such items. They are part of a heritage that connects the present day generation to the crucial events that took place then,” said Maurice Barasa the curator of the museum.

Great assets

Hidden at the corner of Uhuru Highway and Haile Selassie Avenue in Nairobi, the railway museum is not popular, though.

The Konigsberg trophies ended up in Kenya, perhaps by default. The country was a British colony, and since the British contributed to WW1 victory, these artifacts found their way to Nairobi - where they still attract attention, almost a century after the Konigsberg was sunk on the mouth of River Ruvuma following a hide and seek battle with British warships.

According to Mr Barasa, the items from the German warship add a tangible angle to what is taught in class. They are great assets to the museum and would not be traded for anything.

It is therefore no wonder that most of the visitors to the museum are secondary school students.

In fact at the time of our visit, a group of students had just finished doing a round inside the museum while another waited outside.

According to Mr Barasa, the fact that Kenya holds items from the great warship of the time is an important milestone in history.

To the British forces, bringing down a superior warship like the Germany’s ‘Konigsberg’ was a great achievement.

The ship is believed to have been the most prestigious warship of the time built between 1905 and 1913. It had a top speed of 24 knots, a range of 3,000 miles and was armed with ten high velocity kropp four inch guns with a range of around ten miles. The furniture from the ship now found at the museum serves as a souvenir of the victory.

Also at the museum are files detailing communication between the German government and German administrators in Tanzania, then known as Tanganyika, retrieved from the sunken ship.

Not even one of the heaps of blue files has any writings in English as they are all in the German language. Nevertheless, Mr Barasa says that their presence at the museum enriches the history of Kenya’s relations to East African countries.

One of the powerful guns recovered from the ‘Konigsberg’ is found at the Fort Jesus museum in Mombasa while another of the guns is found in Pretoria, South Africa.

Keeping the storage environment safe and warm to avoid dampness is the secret that has helped to maintain the original status of the artifacts over the years.

“The law is clear that we are not supposed to change the look of an artefact,” said Mr Barasa.

For those stored outdoors, routine maintenance practices like applying a fresh coat of paint similar to the original colour maintains the original look of the artefacts.

Treasured heritage

Not only are items of war used for academic reference but most importantly form part of a treasured heritage. Many a country has spent substantial time in negotiations to get back what they believe belongs to them.

A case in point is the battle between Germany and other European nations -that led to Adolf Hitler committing suicide - whose effects spill over to present times in disputes over Hitler’s skull that is thought to be in Russia.

In the battle, European opponents were determined to capture the Nazi leader so when Russia became the first to lay hands on Hitler’s skull, she confiscated it although it rightfully belonged to the Germans. However, arguments propose that Russia might have retained the skull for bragging rights.

Kenya too has lost important items that either relate to the struggle for independence or historical happenings relevant to its past.
The attempted retrieval of the skull of Koitalel Arap Samoei, a Nandi leader who was beheaded for resisting British colonial rule is only one of several attempts to get back Kenyan artefacts from foreign galleries.

The skull is on display as a colonial era trophy at a gallery in London and attempts to get it back have only yielded return of his paraphernalia including his walking stick and clothes which are now found at the Koitalel museum in Nandi.

Similarly, attempts to get back skins of the man-eaters of Tsavo - a vital part of the history of the construction of the Kenya railway line - have hit a snag as the Field Museum in Chicago will not part with them. The museum purchased the lion skins for 5000 dollars from Henry Peterson who killed the lions.

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