Michael Mosbacher

Why Jesus College shouldn’t have returned its Benin bronze

Jesus's Benin cockerel (Photo: Chris Loades/ Jesus College)

Jesus College Cambridge can claim a world first. It is the first institution, at least in the twenty-first century, to return a so-called Benin Bronze because it was looted in a British punitive raid in 1897 on the historic Kingdom of Benin, now part of the territory of Nigeria. The College’s Master Sonita Alleyne has today handed over its Okukor – a brass statue of a cockerel that took pride of place in the college’s dining hall peering over generations of students – to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

Germany announced in May that its public museums would return their hundreds of Benin artefacts; Dan Hicks — Curator of World Archaeology at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and a professor at the university — is itching to return that museum’s 145 Benin items; the Church of England is ‘in discussions’ to return its two Benin bronzes, even though these were gifts sculpted in the 1980s so could not possibly have been looted. All these objects are however still safely ensconced in their Western homes; only Jesus’s cockerel has so far gone back – but this is nothing to be proud of.

Jesus’s Okukor was donated to the College in 1905 by Captain George William Neville – the father of a Jesus student. In January 1897 a party of nine white colonial officials and 250 or so African porters set out for the Kingdom of Benin. They were ambushed and seven of the colonialists, alongside many African porters, were killed. In retaliation the British launched a punitive expedition against the Kingdom of Benin. British forces captured Benin City and the palace of the Oba (king) of Benin in 1897 and the territory of the kingdom was incorporated into the British colony that would become Nigeria. The Oba’s palace and other ceremonial buildings were richly ordained with ornate ivory carvings and bronzes predominantly dating from the sixteenth century onwards.

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