esus College, University of Cambridge, England yesterday announced that it would hand over a Benin bronze cockerel, Okukor, to a Nigerian delegation on October 27, in a gesture Nigerian officials said “offered hope for amicable resolutions” of the ongoing disputes over the ownership of its cultural properties.
The Okukor, described by the college as a “royal ancestral heirloom,” was taken from the Benin Kingdom during a punitive expedition in 1897, when thousands of bronzes were looted by British forces.
It will be the first stolen artefact to be returned and this 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.
Jesus College, the first British institution to return one of the stolen bronzes, in what it described as “a historic moment”, said officials of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments will formally collect the Bronze in its College on October 27.
“Delegates from the Commission and Benin will visit the College for a ceremony to complete the handover process and celebrate the rightful return of the Bronze,” said the college.
Ms Sonita Alleyne, OBE, Master of Jesus College, said: “This is an historic moment. We look forward to welcoming representatives from Nigeria and Benin to the handover ceremony and to celebrating the return of this Bronze.
“This is the right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artefact.
“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 calls for this.”
In a message to the college, His Royal Majesty, Oba of Benin, Ewuare II expressed his delight at the return of the artefact which he described as important to the religious beliefs of the Benin people.
He 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.
“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 our President Buhari and our National Commission for Museums and Monuments for their renewed efforts in securing the release of our artefacts on our behalf.
“Finally, we wish to thank the student body of Cambridge University for bringing to light the historical significance of this revered piece of the Royal Court of Benin. It is worthy of note that our father attended Cambridge University but was then Prince Solomon Akenzua. He later ascended the throne of our forefathers as Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, Oba of Benin.”
Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed and the Director-General, NCMM, Professor Abba Isa Tijani, expressed gratitude to Jesus College for setting the pace in the return of the artefacts.
The minister said: “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.”
Tijani 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 that are still doubtful of this new evolving approach whereby nations and institutions agree with source nations on return without rancor.
“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.”
The Okukor was removed from public display at the college following calls from students for it to be sent back in 2016.
In May 2019, Jesus College set up its Legacy of Slavery Working Party – comprising Fellows, staff and student representatives – to explore the historical, legal and moral status of the College’s ownership of the Bronze. They examined evidence showing that the statue was looted directly from the Court of Benin, as part of the punitive British expedition of 1897, 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.
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.”