How I helped a Benin bronze get back home

I remember seeing the gold plaque in Latin on the stand of the okukor – a bronze sculpture of a cockerel – in the dining hall when I started at Jesus College, Cambridge, in 2013. I was a classics student at the time, and had secured a place on the four-year classics degree that enabled students from more diverse backgrounds to learn Latin and Greek; I was one of very few black classicists at Cambridge. As my language skills developed, I noticed the Latin on the sculpture’s plaque used the verb rapere (“to seize”), instead of dare (“to give”) – suggesting it did not arrive at the college in a positive way. As I began to investigate, I learned of its bloody history and, as somebody of Jamaican descent, my interest in returning the okukor to its rightful home was immediately piqued.

I discovered the bronze was stolen from Benin, now in modern day Nigeria, in a “punitive” British colonial expedition of 1897. During the expedition, the British razed Benin City to the ground, exiled the Oba (or “king”), and seized about 3,000 pieces of art. Decades later, the 26th annual report of Jesus College, dated July 1930, states the alumnus George William Neville presented the college with “a splendid bronze cock of ancient native workmanship”. Since then, the bronze has stood in the college hall as both a piece of art and a mascot: the college crest includes three cockerels. More digging revealed that the bronze at Jesus was one of many that sit in museums around the world – from the British Museum in London to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Armed with this knowledge I, and several others, started the Benin Bronze Appreciation Committee, with the goal of repatriating the okukor. We produced a proposal, which we put to the Jesus College student union and the college’s ethical affairs committee, securing the support of the Benin royal family and the president of Nigeria in the process.

The proposal outlined three primary reasons the bronze should be returned. The first was its importance culturally and historically for the people of Benin and Nigeria: they had repeatedly requested the safe return of the bronzes seized in 1897. Indeed, Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist and member of the Benin Dialogue Group, has said “no matter how small [returning the bronze] may look, it is a huge step toward the realisation of the restitution of the works from the Benin kingdom that were looted by the British”. Second, the repatriation of the bronze serves to help continue the practice of rejecting colonialism by highlighting its historic and brutal wrongs. And, vitally, it is a signal to black and minority ethnic students at Cambridge that the university recognises and renounces the exploitation, dehumanisation and degradation of their ancestors; this was echoed by other decolonisation movements at the time such as Rhodes Must Fall or Decolonise Cambridge.

Frustratingly, however, after we flagged the issue, the college removed the okukor unceremoniously – without informing the committee or the student body, and gave the impression to many that the matter had been dealt with. From then, the bronze remained in college but out of the public eye, and the issue was kicked into the long grass. So it was with great relief that I saw the college finally decide to repatriate the okukor this week – over three years on from the creation of our Benin Bronze Appreciation committee.

And this comes at a pivotal moment for restorative justice and decolonisation. At Jesus, Sonita Alleyne has recently become the first black woman master of any Oxbridge college. In May, the college launched a legacy of slavery working party, which is looking at both the bronze and the college’s historical links with Tobias Rustat, who accumulated much of his wealth from the Royal African Company, which “shipped more enslaved African women, men, and children to the Americas than any other single institution”.

Cambridge University as a whole announced its intention to launch a slave trade inquiry to “acknowledge its role during a dark phase of human history” earlier this year; this came after Glasgow University announced its intention to make amends in a programme of “reparative justice” for its links to colonialism, deciding to pay £20m in reparations this August. Elsewhere, on a political level, the Labour party has announced its intention to make teaching about colonialism and the British empire a curriculum requirement.

There are those who suggest that actions such as repatriating Benin bronzes erase history. I, however, believe the opposite: to repatriate stolen artefacts, and to educate people on the wrongs of colonialism, is to clarify history, not erase it. Prior to my translation of the plaque, few but those well-versed in the history of the college knew the significance of the okukor. Now it is public knowledge, and the okukor no longer sits quietly in a lofty Cambridge hall, its story forgotten. I would like to think that this could be the beginning of a trend of Britain addressing its sinister colonial past, both at Oxbridge and beyond. As Dan Hicks, professor of archaeology at Oxford University, curator of archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum and representative of the Benin Dialogue Group, has said: “We have reached a tipping point in our national dialogues about cultural restitution of objects looted under British colonialism.”