Jesus College at Cambridge University this week became the first institution to officially hand over a bronze artifact from Benin to Nigeria – a bronze rooster known as the Okukor – one of thousands of artifacts looted by British soldiers from the Royal Palace of Benin in an act of colonial violence almost a century and a quarter ago.
“It is an object of beauty,” Sonita Alleyne, master of Jesus College Cambridge, said Wednesday during a handover ceremony in Cambridge in the presence of Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, who is the younger brother of Benin’s Oba. , High Commissioner of Nigeria to Great Britain. Sarafa Tunji Isola. A delegation from Nigeria and Edo State, the former kingdom of Benin, was present.
“It is an object of meaning, both spiritual and religious,” she added.
“I look at him and I can appreciate his beauty,” Alleyne said. The Okukor has graced formal dinners at the College and has held pride of place at receptions since being introduced to the College by a student’s father in 1905. “But am I the person who shoots the most? of pride to embrace and contemplate its Cultural Significance? “
Alleyne, of Afro-Caribbean descent and the first black person to lead a college at Cambridge University, recognized the moral imperative to return stolen property “unconditionally and unconditionally.”
“It does not belong to us,” she concluded, presenting the 16th century bronze to Abba Isa Tijani, director general of the National Commission of Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, and inviting the prince and other dignitaries to sign. legal transfer. .
Long period of reflection
The solemn presentation follows a long reflection by the College, initially prompted by two students, who in 2016 began to wonder about bronze and its provenance. The question was later expanded, particularly at the time of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign to topple the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, to examine Jesus College’s own historical links to colonial exploitation, imperial violence and the slave trade.
The College established a Slavery Legacy Working Group (LSWP) in early 2019, which met to decide what to do with the bronze and to examine the legacy of 17th century benefactor Tobias Rustat. century, whose cash donations to the College today would be worth at least £ 500,000 (US $ 690,000) and which is commemorated on a prominent plaque in the college chapel, where he is buried.
Rustat was also a prominent member of the Royal African Company, which, according to historian William Pettigrew, “shipped more African women, men and child slaves to the Americas than any other institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade ”.
The plaque will be moved to a new exhibit hall spanning the College’s long history and “contextualized” to educate future generations of students and visitors – and its portrait will be preserved, according to the College.
Alleyne acknowledged during the ceremony that if the College were proud to be the first institution in the world to officially return one of Benin’s bronzes, the same Nigerian delegation would travel to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland on Thursday to receive a second bronze, a representation of an oba, one of the kings of Benin, which the University of Aberdeen purchased in 1957.
Other institutions such as the Humboldt Forum in Germany were also planning to return much larger collections of bronzes from Benin. In France, the musée du quai Branly in Paris will return in November 26 treasures stolen during a similar colonial raid at the Abomey Palace in the kingdom of Dahomey, now renamed Benin. The treasures include the throne of Behanzin, the last king of Dahomey.
The Benin bronzes were taken during a “punitive” expedition by British forces, during a brutal sacking of the Oba palace in Benin. Bronzes expert Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archeology at the University of Oxford and curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, said it happened at a time when a number of European countries were using looting – and wrote about it “in their army.” manuals ”- as a control technique.
It was a period between the Berlin Conference of 1884, when European nations divided Africa among themselves, and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. “Africa is subject to this incredible array of military attacks. “said Hicks. News from academia, and it was deliberate. “This displacement of kings, chiefs and other rulers, as well as the looting, is not a side effect.”
Hicks said that the fact that the Benin bronzes and other looted treasures were exhibited so quickly and distributed across Europe in national ethnographic collections, was evidence of how they were being used to reinforce notions of cultural supremacy and seizure of sovereignty.
During the Jesus College handover ceremony, Prince Aghatise Erediauwa spoke of the violence of the military attack of 1897 and the looting of the kingdom of his ancestors and of his ancestral home, the Oba Palace in Benin.
“When I saw Okukor for the first time, I became extremely emotional,” he said. “I grew up in the Oba palace in Benin. I know the palace… as it is today. We were brought up with explanations of what the palace looked like in 1897, not just the grandeur, but the power associated with the Oba Palace of Benin.
“So standing here and seeing this object, I know from my family history how far in the recesses of the Oba Palace and its interior chambers, strangers had to surrender, loot and get something. thing like that. They were shrines that were very, very sacred to the palace and the kingdom. “
Oluwakemi Akinrele, a Nigerian first year art history student at Jesus College, invited to address the ceremony, said the bronzes were a symbol of the strength of the pre-colonial kingdom of Benin and a unifying force for Nigerians today.
“The return of this bronze from Benin hopefully marks the beginning of a period when Britain is beginning to come to terms with its colonial past and Nigeria begins to regain control of its cultural and historical narrative through the ‘art, ”she said.
“Left in their current institutions, these bronzes represent the worst injustice of the colonial era. Once surrendered, they will reinforce pride in a period of Nigerian history that remains cherished today.
Leadership role in bronze return
Alleyne’s leadership in paving the way for the return of bronze was recognized by the president of LSWP, Véronique Mottier, director of studies in human, social and political sciences at Jesus College and professor of sociology at the University of Lausanne, in Swiss.
“That the Fellowship of Jesus College as a whole was able to have an open and honest conversation about our recommendation is truly a credit to the courageous leadership of our Master, who oversaw the decision-making process from the earliest days. days of his master’s degree, ”she admitted. Born in Barbados, Alleyne became a master of the College in October 2019.
Mottier described the archival work and research conducted by LSWP and students on the history of bronze and “the shadows that hang over our institution today … through the horrific history of slavery and violence. colonial.
“We found that the College’s historical documents explicitly stated in 1905 that the institution” gratefully accepted this bronze figure which was part of the booty captured in Benin, “” she said, adding that after the death of the donor, at least 128 other artifacts in his possession were auctioned off in 1930.
One of the reasons the Okukor was presented to the College was that the College’s coat of arms includes three rooster heads to represent its founding by Bishop John Alcock.
The LSWP had also decided that, although in law looting was legal, it was “important to remember that legal is not necessarily the same as moral”, and returning bronze was “just the right thing to do. to do “.
Regional museums are considering approaches
The College’s initiative to return bronze could pave the way for the return of much larger collections.
Some British regional museums are also considering what to do with the looted items, but the British Museum in London, which holds the world’s largest collection of over 900 bronzes from Benin, is currently required by law, under the British Museum Act 1963, to return objects. and a change of heart would require a change in the law.
Tijani of the Nigeria Museums Commission said he wanted the British Museum to understand that it had “nowhere to go” when he saw all these other institutions respond positively to Nigeria’s demands for a return of the museums. bronzes and he hoped Jesus College would support him in lobbying the British Parliament for a necessary change in the law.
He also said the museums commission would collaborate with Jesus College “in the areas of research and capacity building, and in the areas of joint exhibition.”
According to Oxford’s Hicks, there had been returns of bronzes as early as early 1938, in restitutions overseen by the British Museum itself.
But there had been a backlash, “a concerted effort between museum directors, officials, politicians, in the UK, France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, to find ways to introduce legal bottlenecks”, and to introduce the excuses still used today. .
African societies, we were told, are not able to deal with works of art “which they have been dealing with in some cases for 500 years,” he said. Hicks argued that the way bronzes and other treasures were displayed alongside artefacts from ancient Egypt or the Assyrians with the very clear message that “We brought your culture back alive to the Bronze Age. We display images that show that your culture belongs to the past, that it is archaeological. “
Senegalese professor Suleymane Bachire Diagne of Columbia University, New York, had a different point of view.
“The Benin Bronzes really changed the way Europeans perceive African art,” he told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in an interview about the Humboldt Forum projects. Europeans “were fascinated by the sophistication of the work. They were really amazed, amazed, first of all at what that meant in terms of metalworking and the very sophisticated technique known as casting.
That said, he was deeply in favor of their return to Nigeria and the museum being built in Benin City to house them. “We are talking about righting a wrong,” he said.