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Dutch University Has Tribal Head

TOBY STERLING | December 23, 2008 04:42 PM EST | AP

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AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — It's a brutal 19th century revenge story: An African tribal chief kills two Dutch emissaries and hangs their heads from his throne. In retaliation, a Dutch general has him killed and decapitated.

Almost 200 years later, the dispute may finally be laid to rest. On Tuesday, a Dutch academic hospital acknowledged it has the head of chief Badu Bonsu II, but it would not disclose whether it would be returned to Ghana as requested.

The Leiden University Medical Center had refused to comment in October when Ghana learned that the center likely had the head in its anatomical collection, and asked for it to be returned to the Ashanti region where he ruled.

"Without burial of the head, the deceased will be hunted in the afterlife. He's incomplete," Eric Odoi-Anim, a minister at Ghana's embassy, said at the time. "It's also a stigma on his clan, on his kinsmen, and him being a (high-ranking) chief _ this is even more serious."

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said in a note to parliament that he sympathized with Ghana's request, and the center responded on its Web site Tuesday that it is "processing" the application for return. It stopped short of saying whether it actually plans to return the head.

The center said it would not discuss the matter further publicly.

"We have a well-considered policy about our anatomic-historical collection," it said in a statement.

The existence of the head was brought to light by prominent Dutch writer Arthur Japin, who said on television he had come across it, preserved with formaldehyde in a glass container, while researching a historical novel.

"He's got a little ring-beard, his eyes are closed as if he's sleeping," said Japin. "And my first thought was, this is not fitting."

Japin seized the opportunity of a state visit by Ghana's President John Kufuor in October to draw attention to the matter.

The Dutch established trading and slave posts in Ghana in the late 1500s, and remained involved in the country _ then known in Europe as the Gold Coast _ until late in the 19th century.

According to Japin, the head was taken by Maj. Gen. Jan Verveer in retaliation for Bonsu's killing of two Dutch emissaries, whose heads were then hung from his throne as trophies.

It was not clear exactly when Bonsu was killed. Verveer was recruiting soldiers and slaves in Ashanti to serve in the East Indies in the late 1830s.

The head was apparently brought to Leiden around that time at the request of a researcher who studied skull shapes.

Filed by Dan Duray  |  Report Corrections