Cambridge University returns looted Benin Bronze cockerel

Jesus College in the University of Cambridge has returned a looted Benin bronze to Nigeria, becoming the first UK institution to do so. The unprecedented decision was announced in November 2019 after a student-led campaign initiated talks between the college and the Benin Dialogue Group.

It’s massively significant,” remarked Sonita Alleyne, the master of Jesus College. “It’s a momentous occasion.

Known as the Okukor, the cockerel sculpture was one of more than a thousand precious objects that decorated the royal palace of Benin. The Kingdom of Benin, now southern Nigeria, was one of the oldest states on the coast of West Africa.

In 1905 the sculpture was donated to the college by Captain George William Neville (1852-c.1930), a former British Army officer and father of a student. Until recently it was described by the college as a “royal ancestral heirloom.” Research later found that “there is no doubt” the bronze was looted directly the royal court of Benin by British colonial forces in 1897.

We are proud to be the first institution to simply act, to just do it. This Benin bronze, this Okukor, does not belong to us,” Alleyne concluded.

This week a livestreamed ceremony at Jesus College culminated in the remaining legal documents being officially signed by eminent Nigerians, including Professor Abba Isa Tijani, the director general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria and Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, the brother of Ewuare II, the current Oba of Benin.

Speaking about the future of the bronze, Professor Tijani said “I believe we will partner with the international community, with museums all over the world, so we will be able to [share] collections for collaborations in exhibitions, in research. We look forward to that.”

Following in the footsteps of Jesus College, this week the University of Aberdeen also legally transferred ownership of a “priceless” Benin bronze depicting the head of an Oba. “Over the last 40 years the Benin bronzes have become important symbols of injustice,” explained the university’s vice-chancellor, George Boyne. “It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural significance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances.”

Additionally, the Nigerian government recently handed a formal letter to the British Museum requesting the repatriation of looted artefacts. Under the ‘British Museum Act 1963’, the museum is legally prohibited from the deaccession of items in its collection. However, due to recent pressures from other museums and the Nigerian authorities, the museum is now in talks to lend the Benin bronzes to the planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City.

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