Jesus College is set to return a controversial bronze cockerel that was looted from Benin, Nigeria in the 19th century, following a successful campaign from students to reject the “spoils of war”.
The sculpture, known as the Benin bronze, was stolen by Victorian explorers and has resided in Jesus College since 1905.
The bronze cockerel which was taken by British colonial forces in 1897 and donated to Jesus College Cambridge is to be returned to Nigeria in an unprecedented step that adds momentum to the growing repatriations movement.
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 City by British forces.
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.
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.
”The students’ campaign has gained further momentum after winning the backing of Prince Edun Akenzua, the great-grandson of Oba Ovoramwen, from whose kingdom the bronzes were looted in 1897.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph at his home in Benin City in southern Nigeria, Prince Akenzua disclosed that he had now written to the Jesus College students’ union to express his support for repatriation.
“It is something I have been campaigning for myself for many years without much success,” said Prince Akenzua, whose family still serve as traditional rulers in Benin City. “It is about time these statues came home to their original owners”.”It is ridiculous,” he said. “It is like tracking down a thief who has stolen your car, only for him to tell you that you can’t have it back because there is a risk it might get stolen again.
“The Benin Bronzes were a collection of 3,000 pieces of art taken by British troops during reprisals for the killing of nine of their countrymen in a trade dispute between London and the Benin monarch.
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”.