University of Cambridge returns looted Benin bronze to Nigeria

Students led campaign to have the statue, looted by Britain in the 19th century, returned to West Africa

Sonita Alleyne (L), Master of Jesus College, with Director General of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Prof Abba Isa Tijani, with the bronze cockerel, known as the ‘Okukur’, before its restitution. PA

The University of Cambridge has returned a bronze cockerel statue to Nigeria in another victory for those calling for the return of colonial spoils to their original owners.

The statue, known as the Okukur, was looted by British colonial forces in 1897 and given to Jesus College in 1905 by the father of a student.

Before a ceremony on campus on Wednesday to mark its formal return, Sonita Alleyne, master of Jesus College, called it “massively significant’ and a “momentous occasion".

Students at the world-famous university had 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 is head of the Eweka dynasty of the Benin Empire in what is modern-day Nigeria.

Ms Alleyne said the restitution was “the right thing to do" and acknowledged the artefact was of "cultural and spiritual significance to the people of Nigeria" and a “part of their ancestral heritage".

The statue was removed from display at the college in 2016 and will be given to Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

The current Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, said he hoped others would “expedite the return of our artworks”, many of which he said were of “religious importance” to his community.

This Benin statue of a cockerel is one of hundreds of bronzes thought to have been looted by colonial powers from what is now Nigeria. Photo: Chris Loades via Reuters

Institutions worldwide are under increasing pressure to return artefacts that were looted during the days of empire, as a growing decolonisation movement asks for a reappraisal of the role of colonialism in museums.

In March, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland announced that it would return a Benin bronze sculpture that was looted by British soldiers in Nigeria in “one of the most notorious examples of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with 19th century European colonial expansion”.

The Horniman Museum and Gardens in London, home to 49 works from Benin City, including 15 Benin bronzes, followed the Scottish university’s example in April, when it announced a new policy to allow for the repatriation of certain items.

The British Museum, home to 900 artefacts looted from the former kingdom of Benin, has been urged to do likewise.

Institutions across Europe are also reconsidering their approach to these precious objects, with museums in France, Germany and the Netherlands currently engaged in discussions about returning Benin bronzes.

The Quai Branly Museum in Paris is displaying 26 looted colonial-era artefacts from Benin before handing them back to the West African country this month.

The pieces, from a trove of objects taken by French forces in 1892, are from the kingdom of Dahomey in the south of present-day Benin and include the throne of Dahomey's last king, Behanzin, as well as three totemic statues, four palace doors, several portable altars and three warrior dance staffs.

In April last year, Germany said it would hand back ancient pillaged artworks known as 'the Benin Bronzes' to Nigeria next year. They were stolen by British troops at the end of the 19th century.

Nigeria said last month it had agreed with Germany on the return of hundreds of Benin Bronzes, metal plaques and sculptures from the 16th to 18th centuries that were stolen from the palace of the ancient kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria.

Belgium has announced plans to return several objects taken from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Updated: October 27th 2021, 1:29 PM