Jesus College at Cambridge returns looted Nigerian artefacts

Jesus College at Cambridge will today return Benin bronze cockerel to Nigeria 124 years after it was looted by British colonial forces – following decision by ‘Legacy of Slavery’ student body

  • Jesus College, Cambridge is returning a looted bronze artefact to Nigeria 
  • The statue, known as  The Okukort, was stolen from the King of Benin in 1897
  • British troops were sent to the Kingdom of Benin to overthrow its ruler
  • While destroying the city, troops plundered valuable items to pay  

A Cambridge University college will hand over to Nigeria a sculpture that was looted by British troops in 1897, setting a precedent that will put pressure on other institutions to return stolen artefacts.

The sculpture of a cockerel was one of hundreds of Benin Bronzes that were pillaged from the once mighty Kingdom of Benin, located in what is now Nigeria. They are among Africa’s most culturally significant artefacts and Nigerian authorities have been calling for years for their return.

‘This is the right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artefact,’ said Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, in a statement ahead of a ceremony to hand over the cockerel to a Nigerian delegation.

The college described the handover as ‘the first institutional return of its kind’.

Germany has agreed to start returning Benin Bronzes held in its museums next year, but the British Museum in London, which holds the largest and most significant collection of them, has made no such commitment.

Master of Jesus College Sonita Alleyne, left, with Director General of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Professor Abba Isa Tijani met ahead of today’s ceremony to return the cockerel 

British soldiers with objects looted from the royal palace during the operation to sack Benin City in 1897 and overthrow its ruler

Jesus College, University of Cambridge has agreed to return a bronze statute of a cockerel, called The Okukor, which was looted by the British Army when they sacked Benin in 1897

The bronze, pictured, was given to Jesus College in 1905 by the father of a student 

‘We thank Jesus College for being a trailblazer and we look forward to a similar return of our artefacts by other institutions that are in possession of them,’ said Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture.

After being looted, the cockerel was given to Jesus College in 1905 by the father of a student. The college announced in 2019 it would return it to Nigeria.

In recent years, a range of British institutions have been grappling with the cultural legacies of colonialism, particularly the issue of what to do about disputed heritage.

The British Museum and other European museums, along with Nigerian authorities, are involved in a Benin Dialogue Group that aims to facilitate the construction in Benin City of a new museum to house returned bronzes.

The British Museum has spoken about ‘opportunities for sharing and displaying’ items from its collection in Nigeria, but has never said it would transfer ownership. 

The master of a Cambridge University college has described the return of a looted bronze cockerel to representatives of Nigeria as a ‘momentous occasion’. 

Students campaigned for the artefact to be returned, and the college’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party concluded in 2019 that it ‘belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin’.

The Oba of Benin is head of the historic Eweka dynasty of the Benin Empire, centred on Benin City in modern-day Nigeria.

Handover documents will be signed at a ceremony at the college on Wednesday to transfer ownership of the Okukur to the delegation from Nigeria.

The ceremony, to include speeches and music, will be streamed online in Nigeria.

Sonita Alleyne, master of Jesus College, said: ‘It’s massively significant.

‘It’s a momentous occasion.’

She said it was the ‘right thing to do’ to return the artefact, which is of ‘cultural and spiritual significance to the people of Nigeria’.

‘It’s part of their ancestral heritage,’ Ms Alleyne added.

She said the Nigerian delegation will decide how and when to move the Okukur.

Unlike Jesus College, the British Museum, which has a large collection of looted artefacts from across the globe, has refused to commit to transferring ownership 

Ms Alleyne said museums in France, Germany and the Netherlands are engaged in discussions about returning Benin bronzes.

‘We hope they do get to the same position as we do,’ she said.

‘We think it’s a morally grounded position.’

The statue was removed from display at the college in 2016 and will be given to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments in a ceremony attended by delegates from the commission and Benin.

His royal majesty, Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II said in a statement: ‘We truly hope that others will expedite the return of our artworks, which in many cases are of religious importance to us.’

French museums are in the process of returning large amounts of looted artefacts from Africa following a commitment made by President Emmanuel Macron

A Paris museum is displaying 26 looted colonial-era artefacts for one last time before France returns them home to Benin.

The wooden anthropomorphic statues, royal thrones and sacred altars were pilfered by the French army in the 19th century from Western Africa.

President Emmanuel Macron has suggested that France needs to right the wrongs of the past, making a landmark speech in 2017 in which he said he can no longer accept ‘that a large part of many African countries’ cultural heritage lies in France’.

This laid down a roadmap for the controversial return of the royal treasures taken during the era of empire and colony, a move that could have potential ramifications across European museums.

Several French museums are hosting exhibitions featuring the looted artefacts before their return to their home countries 

The French will have a final glimpse of the objects in the Musee du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac from October 26-31.

French culture minister Roselyne Bachelot tried to assuage jitters among European museums, emphasising that this initiative ‘will not create a legal precedent’.

A French law was passed last year to allow the restitution of the statues to the Republic of Benin, as well as a storied sword to the Army Museum in Senegal.

But Ms Bachelot said that the French government’s law was intentionally specific in applying solely to the 26 artefacts.

‘(It) does not establish any general right to restitution’ and ‘in no way calls into question’ the right of French museums to hold on to their heritage.

Yet critics of such moves – including the British Museum, which is in a decades-long tug-of-war with the Greek government over a restitution of the Elgin Marbles – argue that it will open the floodgates to emptying Western museums of their collections.

Among the items being returned are the doors of King Glele’s Palace which were looted between 1880 and 1889

Many are made up of objects acquired, or stolen, during colonial times. French museums alone hold at least 90,000 artefacts from sub-Saharan Africa.

The story of the ‘Abomey Treasures’ is as dramatic as their sculpted forms.

In November 1892, Colonel Alfred Dodds led a pilfering French expeditionary force into the Kingdom of Danhome located in the south of present-day Benin. The colonising troops broke into the Abomey Palace, home of King Behanzin, and seized many royal objects including the 26 artefacts that Dodds donated to the Musee d’Ethnographie du Trocadero in Paris in the 1890s.

Since 2003, the objects have been housed at the Musee du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac.

One hundred and twenty nine years later, their far-flung journey abroad will finally end.

Benin’s culture minister Jean-Michel Abimbola called the return of the works a ‘historic milestone’, and the beginning of further cooperation between the two countries, during a news conference last week.

The country is founding a museum in Abomey to house the treasures that will be partly funded by the French government.

The French Development Agency will give some 35 million euro (£30 million) toward the ‘Museum of the Saga of the Amazonians and the Danhome Kings’ under a pledge signed this year.

The official transfer of the 26 pieces is expected to be signed in Paris on November 9 in the presence of Mr Macron and the art is expected to be in Benin a few days later, Mr Abimbola said.

While locals say the decision is overdue, what is important is that the art will be returned.

‘It was a vacuum created among Benin’s historical treasures, which is gradually being reconstituted,’ said Fortune Sossa, President of the African Cultural Journalists Network.

How the British Empire crushed the Kingdom of Benin in just ten days after a previous force was ‘massacred’ by Edo warriors 

In December 1896, Britain’s Acting Consul-General in the region, James Phillips, embarked on an expedition to depose Oba Ovonramwen, the king of Benin.

In his letter to Lord Salisbury, the Foreign Secretary, Phillips wrote: ‘I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool.’  

Phillips set sail with a medical officer, two trading agents and around 250 African soldiers masquerading as porters – disguising guns in their baggage.

He had sent word to the Oba of his planned visit which he claimed was to discuss peace and trade.

Despite requests by the Oba to postpone the trip, Phillips set off.

The interior of the Oba’s palace after it was burned during the sacking of Benin. Bronze plaques are seen laid out in the foreground as members of the expedition force sit around

On January 4, the British delegation was ambushed outside a village by Edo warriors, apparently without knowledge of the Oba.

Philips was slaughtered along with the entire British force – save for two men, Captain Alan Maxwell Boisragon, Commandant of the Constabulary of the Niger Coast Protectorate and Ralph Locke, District Commissioner of Warri.

The incident became known as the ‘Benin Massacre.’

Days later Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson was appointed by the Admiralty to lead a force to invade the Kingdom of Benin and sack Benin City.

In February, a force of around 1,200 Royal Marines, sailors and troops from the Niger Coast Protectorate Forces arrived in Benin.

Warships approached the port city from all sides, overwhelming Benin’s basic defences and ancient walls made of earth.

Sir Harry Rawson

In ten days of bloody fighting the British Empire had defeated the Kingdom of Benin, ending 800 years of rule and annexing the territory into colonial Nigeria. 

The mission was heralded as a great success by the British Empire. 

Dan Hicks, of the University of Oxford, has claimed that the British participated in ‘war crimes’ during the attack.

The Oba’s palace was looted and hundreds of priceless artefacts were shipped back to England, hundreds were later sold to other colonial powers throughout Europe and America. 

They later became known as the Benin Bronzes, though many of the works were not necessarily made of metal, others were crafted from ivory and wood. 

One of them, a bronze cockerel, ended up being a permanent fixture in the dining hall at Jesus College, Cambridge.

Many people have campaigned for the cockerel to be returned over the years and in November last year, Cambridge University agreed to return it to Nigeria.

A number of other museums and universities have since also agreed to send items back in recent weeks. 

One campaigner was BBC historian David Olusoga who said The British Museum, which holds hundreds of the sculptures, should have a ‘Supermarket Sweep’ where countries have two minutes to take back their artefacts.

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