A bronze cockerel forcefully taken by British colonial powers and given to Cambridge Jesus College will be returned to Nigeria in a historic step that strengthens the growing movement for repatriation.
The cockerel, also known as the Okukor, and described as a “royal ancestral heirloom” by the college, will be one of the first Benin bronzes to be returned to Nigeria by a major British institution since the penal expedition that took place in 1897, when British forces stole thousands of bronzes from Benin City.
No precise return date has been unveiled, but the college has stated that the bronze cockerel “belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin.”
The return was proposed by Jesus College’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP), a group dedicated to looking at the connections of the institution to slavery, which affirmed that the piece was donated by a student’s father in 1905.
Sonita Alleyne, Jesus College’s master, said the decision was not to “erase history,” but came after “diligent and careful” work that looked at Jesus College’s broader legacy of slavery.
“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.
A 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 realization 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.”
Following appeals from students for it to be sent home in 2016, the cockerel had been removed from its public display, with the college promising to start a dialogue about its future, which could entail a possible return to Nigeria.
Over the past three years, the college says it has been discussing the future of the bronzes with the Benin Dialogue Community, a group of artists and museum members.
The move follows Manchester Museum becoming the first UK institution to return symbolic objects over a century after being confiscated by British forces to Aboriginal groups.
The return of the objects, which include a traditional headdress made from emu feathers might mark the beginning of the repatriation of tens of thousands of such items across the United Kingdom.
The declaration from Jesus College comes almost exactly 12 months after the release of a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, urging France’s return of artifacts from the colonial era.
The Senegalese economist, Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, who co-authored the report, told the Guardian that the British Museum, which contains a massive collection of Benin bronzes, has been behaving as “an ostrich with its head in the sand” by procrastinating the repatriations.
“There’s an expression in French, la politique de l’autruche, which means something is in front of you and you say you can’t see it, like an ostrich with its head in the sand,” Sarr told the Guardian. “They will have to respond and they can’t hide themselves any longer on the issue.”
The British Museum comply with the report’s call for the establishment of “new and more equitable relationships between Europe and Africa”, and is part of the Benin Dialogue Group.
Since the report was released, Ivory Coast, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo have made official demands for the return of artifacts. European countries, including France and Germany, pledged to return objects, with the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, opening discussions with Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and labeling the unwillingness of the Netherlands to return stolen objects as a “disgrace.”
The news comes a week after the launch of a $15 m campaign by Open Society Foundations (OSF) to reinforce efforts to “restore cultural artifacts stolen from the African continent.”
This has happened after France’s return of an object of the colonial era, with Senegal obtaining a saber earlier in November that was originally owned by an Islamic scholar and leader of the 19th century.