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19.10.2006

Dr. Levi´s Defense 

In light of the political nature of the trial, Dr. Levi approached the problem of Mpondo´s credibility by arguing that the issue of “fraudulent intent” could not be raised without also examining the entire colonial policy in German Kamerun up to that point.[ In light of the fact that the Plaidoyer was expanded years after the trial, I refer here only to those sections of it that reasonably can be believed to constitute a rather close version of Levi´s main lines of argument in June 1905. Some of these arguments, as well as much of the evidence he presented, can be corroborated by the very brief references one finds in newspaper articles and the court´s official Gründe (see below). For a deeper discuss] Such an examination would prove that the defendant intended to pay for his debts and explain why it was that he found himself unable to do so. Levi´s most basic strategy for the eight counts of fraud was to demonstrate that the colonial government had effected Mpondo´s impoverishment by prohibiting necessary - and agreed upon - money collections from members of the Akwa lineage, in the hopes of forcing Mpondo´s return and thereby putting and end to his role as official spokesperson for the Akwa people.

Dr. Levi´s principal defense in the trial was to prove that Mpondo did not knowingly rack up debt that he could not repay. Aware of the danger that race could become the main issue of the case, he had to structure the logic of his argument to lessen the power of those racial stereotypes which cast Africans as inherently deceitful. He therefore, like Mpondo, underscored the extent to which the Akwas were important people by depicting the two Duala kings as "masters over the life and death of their people," by juxtapositioning Mpondo´s high standing with the intrigues that beset the German colonial project in Cameroon from the outset (thereby casting doubt on the legality of whole colonial affair),[ To do this, he described the way in which the Duala were apparently tricked by the German colonists already in 1884 and introduced evidence that the phrase "administration of justice" was included in the rights transferred from the Hamburg firms to Gustav Nachtigal, even though this phrase did not exist in the original treaty signed by the Duala kings. Both versions of the treaty are reproduced in the Stenographische Berichte, XI. Lp., II Session, Aktenstück Nr. 294. Levi had and original of the treaty in his possession at the time of the trial. Levi, 10.] and by putting to rest any doubts about Mpondo´s wealth by describing Mpondo´s early education in Germany and by heralding his aristocratic connections. As for the apparent poverty of Mpondo´s father, Levi ascribed this to the logical consequence of unjust local policies which were infractions of the rights the Duala had attempted to reserve in the wording of the 1884 treaty.

The bulk of Dr. Levi´s case against the eight charges of fraud rested on the evidence he had concerning the shady dealings of the colonial government. Using this evidence, which included letters to Mpondo from his father, Levi argued that the prosecution´s case "was not based on legal conviction but rather and primarily motivated by considerations of opportunity in favor of another branch of the administration which would be greatly and most conveniently helped by a negative judgment of Mpundo Akwa." Having demonstrated the chicanery and brutality of the Von Puttkamer regime, Levi reminded the court of Von Puttkamer´s prohibition against collecting money for Mpondo Akwa, as well as of King Akwa´s imprisonment and consequent impoverishment, and used these examples to show that while Mpondo could have reasonably expected to receive money from his father, he did not receive any solely because colonial officials were hoping his lack of funds would in one way or another force him to return.

Key to Dr. Levi´s argument is his contention that Mpondo did not know of his father´s fate or of the prohibition against collecting money before he had fallen deep into debt. Whether or not this was true, it still did not explain why Mpondo spent money so lavishly after months of receiving nothing from home - a fact which could be interpreted as fraudulent intent. This was the interpretation encouraged by the prosecution when it depicted Mpondo as an unemployed ladies man who liked nothing better than to frequent dance halls. Levi approached this aspect of the accusation, as well as the issue of Mpondo´s use of the title "prince," via a complicated strategy that involved raising the racist stereotypes that were in the minds of people present in the courtroom, rendering them harmless by casting them in a different light, and then challenging them through subtle dismissals.

An example of Dr. Levi´s strategy is his treatment of Mpondo´s alleged intemperate, spendthrift behavior, which according to Levi was a trait Mpondo had learned from the most intemperate persons of all: the German nobility. Levi accomplished two things at once here. By referring to the German nobility, he posited the possibility that intemperate behavior can coexist with honor. By using the common stereotype of Africans as prone to mimicry, he simultaneously blamed Germans for Mpondo´s personal habits and suggested that in other cultural systems, where power is based primarily on social capital, lavish spending without the immediate presence of funds may have nothing to do with the intention to defraud. Thus he delinked Mpondo´s personality - so offensive to bourgeois self-perceptions of thrift and modesty-from his alleged crime and brought the attention of the court back to the more relevant fact that Mpondo would have paid back his debts if the colonial government had not been dead set against it.

To exonerate Mpondo from the charge of fraudulently using the title of nobility would be very difficult, as already discussed, because Germany´s African colonies came under the complete sovereignty of the Kaiser; sovereignty and the use of the title “king”, according to European norms, were so closely linked that Levi could not come out and argue that Mpondo was indeed a prince unless he wanted to take on the entire colonial system. To solve this problem, Levi drew upon several popular stereotypes of Africans but used them to argue for a space of difference within German law, that is, for the court´s capacity to entertain other viewpoints, arising out of other historical trajectories, when making a decision about a western legal concept such as “fraud”:

One cannot be surprised that Mpondo Akwa after years of this beguiling intercourse with society, this competition for his company, this glorification of his blue blood should not have developed certain grand airs and mannerisms, perhaps not even in a positive way, which also can be observed in these circles among the young.... If furthermore one takes into account the different mentality and outlook of a black person, his basically different attitude with regard to morals, ethics, customs and decorum, and quite a different innate cultural and critical capacity, if one considers that in spite of his conversion to Christianity there must be some remnants of paganism in his psyche, considering all this it seems more than unfair to hold him completely accountable for his behavior, his way of dressing and his general attitude, not to seem to be what he really is, that we should not draw unrealistic conclusions about the worth and character of his personality.
Through the talented use of rhetoric, Dr. Levi cast Mpondo´s alleged “difference” in a wholly different light than the prosecution. In fact, he seems to have been arguing that Mpondo carried himself like a prince because in Cameroon this is what persons of his status did - hence the emphasis on different morals, ethics, customs, decorum, religion, dress, attitude and so forth. To bring this line of argument home, Levi mused regarding Mpondo´s title:

Quite objectively speaking, can the use of his title "Prince" be called improper? His father was a King, and he, the Prince, was his successor. If his father would not have sold his sovereignty, the accused Mpondo Akwa would later have become King himself, and if he would have visited Germany, he would have been received with royal honor and treated accordingly.

In the space of the “what if” Dr. Levi is able to capture the underlying intellectual logic of Akwa protests within the form and content of German rule.

The judge acquitted Mpondo Akwa of all charges of fraud. In his explanation of his decision, the language of race and politics was completely absent. Instead, he focused on the narrow definition of fraud. It is clear even from this, however, that Levi´s far-reaching defense of Mpondo served it´s purpose: to win back enough credibility for his client that Mpondo could reasonably appear to be a man intending always to pay back the debts he was accruing. Two counts of fraud were thrown out summarily: (1) the case of Todtmann who himself admitted that he did not extend Mpondo credit based on Mpondo´s stature and stories, and (2) the case of Harm, who had since died and left no evidence behind to corroborate his charge of fraud. As for the others, the judge grounded his decision by explaining that although the defendant undoubtedly lacked wisdom in his choice of means to obtain credit, the facility with which credit was given to him must be taken into consideration, as must his belief that he would receive money from home.

The official court Gründe, which was requested by and sent to the Colonial Department of the Foreign Office and hence survives, puts particular emphasis on two bits of evidence: (1) letters from King Akwa to his son in which he alludes to forthcoming money collections amongst the Akwa people for Mpondo´s use; and (2) the testimony of Freiherr von Landsberg, who said that Mpondo was a "man who tended to extremes" and "who was very optimistic based on. his wealth," which convinced von Landsberg that Mpondo honestly believed he would be sent adequate funds to cover his burgeoning debt. The court report commented, "[U]nder these circumstances it could not be made certain that the defendant was subjectively guilty of operating under false pretenses or of hiding the truth, and the acquittal of the defendant must therefore follow due to the absence of this factual criterion for fraud."

Though the prosecution would have to pay the costs of the trial, Mpondo still had to cover his debts. According to a letter sent to Chancellor von Bülow in July 1905, Mpondo calculated his debts at 3500 Marks. Money to pay them back was to come from Cameroon, and hence he requested that the Chancellor intercede to lift the ban. Funds arriving for Mpondo from Cameroon were going to be handed directly to Dr. Levi, who would then make sure that all of Mpondo´s creditors received their due.
The decision of the Altona court provoked the ire of Puttkamer´s supporters; and they responded with virulence. Von Puttkamer himself, upon hearing about it, wrote the Colonial Department asking again if Mpondo could be deported. One conservative newspaper interpreted the trial in explicitly racialist terms. Expressing horror that Africans were in Germany at all, the author assumed that Mpondo had received special treatment as a black man and speciously suggested that if Neger were so different that they could not be held responsible for their actions, then they did not belong in Germany at all and should be sent back to the colonies where the racial hierarchy would keep them control. [Leipziger Neuste Nachrichten, 2.August 1905]

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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