Cambridge University will return to Nigeria a bronze cockerel taken by British colonial forces and donated to its Jesus College.
According to The Guardian, the Okukor, described by the college as a “royal ancestral heirloom”, will be one of the first Benin bronzes to be returned to Nigeria by a major British institution since the punitive expedition in 1897 when thousands of bronzes were stolen from Benin by British forces.
No specific date for return has been released but the college stated that the bronze cockerel “belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin”. The return was recommended by Jesus College’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP), a group dedicated to looking at the institution’s connections to slavery, which confirmed the piece was donated in 1905 by the father of a student.
Sonita Alleyne, the master of Jesus College, said the decision was not taken to “erase history” but came after “diligent and careful” work that looked into the wider legacy of slavery at Jesus College. “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,” she said.
The cockerel had been removed from its public display following calls from students for it to be sent back in 2016, with the college pledging to begin discussions about its future, including a possible return to Nigeria. In the three years since, the college says it has been in discussion with the Benin Dialogue Group, a collective of artists and museum representatives who meet to discuss the future of the bronzes.
Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist and member of the Benin Dialogue Group, 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. This is very important example, which I hope other Europeans, especially British institutions, will follow without any excuses or delays.”
Dan Hicks, a professor of archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and a representative of the Benin Dialogue Group, said: “We have reached a tipping point in our national dialogues about the cultural restitution of objects looted under British colonialism.
“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.”
The Guardian reports that the move follows Manchester Museum becoming the first UK institution to return ceremonial items to Aboriginal groups nearly a century after they were stolen by British forces. The repatriation of the artefacts, which include a traditional headdress made from emu feathers, could be the beginning of the return of tens of thousands of similar items from institutions across the UK, the paper said.