Pressure mounts on British Museum to return Benin Bronzes as Cambridge hands back looted treasure

·3 min read
Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, and Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, with the Okutur, a looted bronze cockerel - Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, and Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, with the Okutur, a looted bronze cockerel - Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Nigeria says it hopes the British Museum will “succumb” to pressure to return the Benin Bronzes after a Cambridge college handed back one of the looted artefacts.

Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, said the museum now had “nowhere to go” after Jesus College, Cambridge officially returned a bronze cockerel.

The cockerel statue, known as the Okukur, was looted by British colonial forces in 1897 and given to Jesus College in 1905 by the father of a student.

Students campaigned for the artefact to be returned, and the college's Legacy of Slavery Working Party concluded in 2019 that it "belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin".

Students at Jesus College, Cambridge had campaigned for the Okutur to be returned - Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Students at Jesus College, Cambridge had campaigned for the Okutur to be returned - Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The Oba of Benin is head of the historic Eweka dynasty of the Benin Empire, centred on Benin City in modern-day Nigeria.

“This is really a great example for other institutions and other countries to take cue from,” Prof Tijani said during a ceremony at Jesus College.

“We look forward to going to Aberdeen to collect another piece. And also hopefully I am sure, of course optimistic, that we will come back to Cambridge to the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, and be in the same process, being the second largest holder [of Benin Bronzes] in the UK.

“And of course the mighty British Museum is waiting and looking and seeing that they have nowhere to go, because all over the world we are receiving a positive response on the willingness to return these collections, which are subject of looting.”

‘Pressure on the British Museum’

The Benin Bronzes are a group of sculptures which include elaborately decorated cast plaques, commemorative heads, animal and human figures, items of royal regalia, and personal ornaments.

They were created from at least the 16th century onwards in the West African kngdom of Benin, by specialist guilds working for the royal court of the Oba - meaning king - in Benin City.

Benin Bronzes on display at the British Museum - Adam Eastland/Alamy Stock Photo
Benin Bronzes on display at the British Museum - Adam Eastland/Alamy Stock Photo

Prof Tijani went on to tell the ceremony’s audience that he looked forward to British people “supporting us and particularly putting pressure on the British Museum to succumb to this trend which is prevailing now [and] to also take cue from what Jesus College has done and what Aberdeen will do and all the other countries.”

Aberdeen University said it would return a Benin Bronze that depicts the head of an Oba, which it purchased at an auction in 1957.

Germany has agreed to start returning Benin Bronzes held in its museums next year, while France has said it will hand over 26 artefacts that were stolen from the kingdom of Abomey in 1892.

A spokesman for the British Museum confirmed that “a letter was delivered on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture in Nigeria to the Trustees of the British Museum asking for the return of Nigerian antiquities in the Museum's collection”.

They said that the museum is currently holding talks with the Benin Dialogue Group adding: “The museum understands and recognises the significance of the issues surrounding the return of objects and works with communities, colleagues and museums across the globe to share our collection as widely as possible.”

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