By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON – A Cambridge University college will on Wednesday hand over to Nigeria a sculpture that was looted by British troops in 1897, setting a precedent that will put pressure on other institutions to return stolen artefacts.
The sculpture of a cockerel was one of hundreds of Benin Bronzes that were pillaged from the once mighty Kingdom of Benin, located in what is now Nigeria. They are among Africa’s most culturally significant artefacts and Nigerian authorities have been calling for years for their return.
“This is the right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artefact,” said Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, in a statement ahead of a ceremony to hand over the cockerel to a Nigerian delegation.
The college described the handover as “the first institutional return of its kind”.
Germany has agreed to start returning Benin Bronzes held in its museums next year, but the British Museum in London, which holds the largest and most significant collection of them, has made no such commitment.
“We thank Jesus College for being a trailblazer and we look forward to a similar return of our artefacts by other institutions that are in possession of them,” said Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture.
After being looted, the cockerel was given to Jesus College in 1905 by the father of a student. The college announced in 2019 it would return it to Nigeria.
In recent years, a range of British institutions have been grappling with the cultural legacies of colonialism, particularly the issue of what to do about disputed heritage.
The British Museum and other European museums, along with Nigerian authorities, are involved in a Benin Dialogue Group that aims to facilitate the construction in Benin City of a new museum to house returned bronzes.
The British Museum has spoken about “opportunities for sharing and displaying” items from its collection in Nigeria, but has never said it would transfer ownership.
(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Christina Fincher)