Cambridge University’s Jesus College will return a looted bronze sculpture to Nigeria. This unprecedented move further fuels the growing repatriation movement across British institutions.
“There is no doubt that the statue was looted directly from the Court of Benin,” concluded the Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP). Earlier this year, the LSWP was established to investigate any historic links between the slave trade and Jesus College.
Captain George William Neville, a former British Army officer, unlawfully bequeathed the statue to the College in 1930. Until recently it was described by the college as a “royal ancestral heirloom.”
The revered cockerel statue, known as an “Okukor“, was in fact stolen in 1897 as imperial troops decimated Benin City, in present-day Nigeria. Whilst the king was exiled during the expedition, about 3,000 artworks were believed to have been looted of which 1,000 pieces were bronze.
Cockerels were viewed as sacrificial animals in Benin and bronze statues of them often adorned ancestral altars.
“We are an honest community, and after thorough investigation into the provenance of the Benin bronze, our job is to seek the best way forward,” announced Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College. She also explained that the college was not attempting to “erase history.”
In 2016, the statue was removed from the college dining hall following calls from students. Journalist Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, a Classics student at the time, first realised something was amiss when she noticed the cockerel’s plaque used the Latin verb “to seize”, rather than “to give.”
“I learned of its bloody history and, as somebody of Jamaican descent, my interest in returning the okukor to its rightful home was immediately piqued,” remarked Batchelor-Hunt.
Jesus College then initiated a conversation with the Benin Dialogue Group, a group of artists and museum representatives who discuss the future of the bronzes.
Nigerian artist and member of the Benin Dialogue Group, Victor Ehikhamenor, said “no matter how small the gesture may look, it is a huge step towards the realisation of restitution of the works from the Benin Kingdom that were looted by the British.”
Numerous academics now hope the repatriation of the Okukor will encourage institutions across Britain to deeply reflect on the troubling histories of their own collections.
“In the past, our attention on this matter was focused on national collections like the British Museum and the V&A – but in reality such loot is held in dozens of institutions across the regions: city museums, art galleries and the collections of universities,” explained Dan Hicks, an archaeology professor at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and member of the Benin Dialogue Group.
No specific date has yet been given for the return of the Okukor.