‘Historic moment’: Cambridge college to return Benin Bronze statue looted by British colonialists

Statue taken from Benin City in 1897 and will be handed to Nigeria this month in first institutional return of its kind

Friday 15 October 2021 16:35
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<p>The Benin bronze statue at Jesus College, University of Cambridge, will be returned to Nigeria this month. </p>

The Benin bronze statue at Jesus College, University of Cambridge, will be returned to Nigeria this month.

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A Cambridge college is to return an antique statue to Nigeria, over 120 years after it was looted by British colonial forces.

The University of Cambridge’s Jesus College will return the bronze cockerel statue to Nigerian delegates this month, in the first institutional return of its kind.

The college set up its Legacy of Slavery Working Party in 2019, following a student-led campaign for the item’s return, to look at the “historical, legal and moral status of the college’s ownership of the Bronze.”

The statue, titled Okukor, is described as a “royal, ancestral heirloom” with important religious and cultural significance, and it was taken from Benin City in modern-day Nigeria by British colonial forces in 1897.

The group concluded that the Okukor, which was given to the college in 1905 by a student’s father and removed from display in 2016, “belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin,” where it was looted from.

Jesus College said in a statement that it "became the first institution in the world to announce its decision to return a Benin Bronze"/

The royal Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II said: “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.

He added: “We truly hope that others will expedite the return of our artworks which in many cases are of religious importance to us.”

Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, described this as a “historical moment,” adding: “This is the right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artefact.”

She continued: “Since we took the decision to return the Bronze following the college‘s Legacy of Slavery Working Party’s (LSWP) extensive research, many organisations have followed in our footsteps.

“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 UK still has hundreds of 13th century Benin bronzes, and following the announcement by Jesus College to return the Okukor statue in November 2019, many regional museums said they would also consider returning such artefacts.

Professor Abba Isa Tijani, the director general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, said: “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.”

The Okukor bronze statue will be returned to Nigerian delegates in a ceremony on October 27.

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