Cambridge college to be first in UK to return looted Benin bronze

Jesus College will give sculpture of a cockerel back to Nigeria, which could spark a wave of repatriations

A Cambridge college is to become the first British institution to return one of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria later this month in what has been described as “a historic moment”.

Jesus College, University of Cambridge, will return the bronze cockerel to Nigerian delegates on 27 October, in a handover ceremony that Nigerian officials say offers “hope for amicable resolutions” to the ongoing disputes over the ownership of cultural properties.

The Okukor, described by the college as a “royal ancestral heirloom”, was taken from the kingdom of Benin, which was later absorbed into Nigeria, during a punitive expedition in 1897 when thousands of bronzes were looted by British forces.

Its return is expected to spark a wave of repatriation ceremonies, as the cultural world continues to reckon with concerns over the ethics of plundered historical artefacts.

“We are indeed very pleased and commend Jesus College for taking this lead in making restitution for the plunder that occurred in Benin in 1897,” said the oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II.

“We truly hope that others will expedite the return of our artworks which in many cases are of religious importance to us. We wish to thank [Nigeria’s] President Buhari and our National Commission for Museums and Monuments for their renewed efforts in securing the release of our artefacts on our behalf.”

The oba also thanked the student body of Cambridge for “bringing to light the historical significance of this revered piece of the royal court of Benin”.”

The Okukor was removed from public display at the college following calls from students for it to be sent back in 2016. The college then set up a legacy of slavery working party (LSWP), comprising fellows, staff and student representatives, to explore the historical, legal and moral status of its ownership of the bronze.

The LSWP examined evidence showing the statue was looted directly from the court of Benin and was given to the college in 1905 by the father of a student.

After Jesus College announced its decision to return the bronze in November 2019, a host of regional museums committed to or said they were also considering returning artefacts.

The UK retains hundreds of Benin bronzes – plaques and sculptures dating to the 13th century, made by artisans from the Edo culture. They were distributed from private collections and in some cases donated by soldiers who took part in the 1897 looting. Historically, much of the focus has been on the British Museum, which holds 900 objects – the largest collection in the world.

Sonita Alleyne, the master of Jesus College, said: “This is an historic moment … it is the right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artefact.

“I would like to thank the LSWP for its diligent and careful investigation into the provenance of the bronze, to the fellows for their keen support for its restitution, and to our students who pioneered early calls for this.”

The campaign to repatriate Benin bronzes gained momentum when Bernie Grant, one of Britain’s first black MPs, made vigorous appeals in the 1990s for their return. But it has been a contentious debate that has recently become embroiled in culture war clashes.

Earlier this year, the then culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, objected to “the removal of statues or other similar objects” and urged museums to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s minister of information and culture, thanked Jesus College for being “a trailblazer”. “We look forward to a similar return of our artefacts by other institutions that are in possession of them,” he said.

Prof Abba Isa Tijani, the director general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, added: “This return offers new hope for amicable resolution in cultural property ownership disputes.

“We hope that it will set a precedent for others around the world who are still doubtful of this new evolving approach whereby nations and institutions agree with source nations on return without rancour.

“On our part, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments is receiving this antiquity for the benefit of the Benin people and the people of Nigeria.”

Britain’s most contentious artefacts

Parthenon marbles
Exhibited at the British Museum, the Parthenon sculptures – controversially removed from the former temple in Athens during Turkish occupation in 1802 at the behest of Lord Elgin, London’s ambassador to the Sublime Porte – are the subject of repatriation requests by Greece. Athens has called the British Museum’s retention of the antiquities illegal and “contrary to any moral principle”. In repeated polls, Britons have voiced support for the repatriation of the carvings.

Rosetta Stone
The stone is the most-visited single object in the British Museum. It was seized from Egypt when Napoleon invaded in 1798, and then taken by the British in 1801. The head of archaeology at the Grand Egyptian Museum has said he believes the stone will “never” return to Egypt despite years of calls for its repatriation.

Maqdala crown
Ethiopians have campaigned for the return of items since they were plundered after the 1868 capture of Maqdala in what was then Abyssinia. Ethiopia lodged a formal restitution claim in 2007 for hundreds of important artefacts from Maqdala held by various British institutions, which was refused. The Victoria and Albert Museum said it had started talks with the Ethiopian embassy over returning treasures in its collections, including a gold crown and royal wedding dress.

Aboriginal art
Thousands of looted Aboriginal artefacts reside in the British Museum. They include bark art as well as the Gweagal shield, a symbol of resistance taken when Captain Cook’s men first encountered Indigenous people in 1770.

Rodney Kelly, a descendant of the Gweagal warrior Cooman, told the Guardian it was wrong for Britain “not to give [the artefacts] back to us”.

Contributor

Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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