On 27 October 2021, Cambridge University will be the first UK institution to officially repatriate one of the looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
The “Benin Bronzes” is the name given to thousands of artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin, or Edo Empire, that was once located in the southern region of modern day Nigeria.
The artifacts were looted by British forces in 1897 when the British Empire annexed the centuries old kingdom and sacked Benin City in a punitive military campaign.
Benin Bronzes are among the most controversial artifacts to have on display due to their presence in hundreds of museums and collections in the West despite the nature of their status as spoils of war.
The bronzes date back as far as the thirteenth century. They were made by Edo craftsmen that worked for the king known as Oba. The artifacts consist of plaques that used to adorn the Benin Royal Palace, animal and human figures, and other ornaments.
Moreover, despite their mention as “bronzes”, the artifacts include wood or brass works and ivory carvings. Most crafted with the lost-wax casting technique, the Benin Bronzes are exquisite pieces of Benin art.
In fact, the ancient technique was passed down to future generations, such that the craftsmen of modern day Benin continue to create artworks just as their ancestors did.
Today, the artifacts are scattered around the world. After the looting by British forces, the relics were taken to Britain and several other western countries to be placed in collections and museums.
Nigeria has been striving to repatriate these artifacts for years, a challenge that several other origin countries, including Turkey, has taken on.
One of the pieces that were taken to Britain after the looting in 1897 is a cockerel statue called The Okukor. The statue has been held by the Jesus College of the University of Cambridge since 1905.
In 2016, the students of Jesus College took issue with The Okukor being on display at the university and demanded its return. Consequently, the college founded the Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP) to investigate the provenance of the artifact. The university had decided on The Okukor’s repatriation in late 2019.
The artifact is planned to be delivered to a delegation from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments with a ceremony on October 27. This will be the first instance of an institutional return of a Benin Bronze from the UK.
What about the rest?
The return of The Okukor may seem trivial as it is merely one among thousands of its kind, but its repatriation has significant implications for the future of the rest of the Benin Bronzes, and more.
The institutional repatriation of a Benin Bronze shows that the return of these controversial artifacts is possible, and further justifies the cause for their repatriation. Consequently, it is highly likely that several other collections and museums, in the UK and beyond, will follow the trend.
Moreover, the trend would not be limited to the Benin Bronzes. The return of an artifact that has been the topic of controversial discussions also sets precedent for the repatriation of other artifacts.
The repatriation of The Okukor has the potential to trigger a domino effect that could clear out a bulk of entire museums, especially the infamous British Museum renowned for its over 900-piece collection of Benin Bronzes, along with other controversial artifacts such as the Parthenon Marbles from Greece or the Rosetta Stone from Egypt. The museum has long been under fire for its stolen artifacts.
In September 2021, a guild from Nigeria that carries on the ancient craft offered the British Museum artworks in exchange for the Benin Bronzes in their collection, a technique utilised by origin countries to repatriate their cultural heritage, to no avail.
On the other hand, some other museums and collections in the UK have already indicated plans of repatriating the Benin Bronzes in their hold. The University of Aberdeen, in March 2021, announced that they would be returning the sculpture of the head of an Oba that was looted in 1897.
The Church of England also declared in April 2021 that it will be repatriating two Benin Bronzes. The two statues were gifted to the then Archbishop of Canterbury four decades ago.
There are contested views within the UK about the return of artifacts to origin countries, with some defending the notion that the artifacts should stay in the UK while others, like MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, define such a notion as “racist and condescending”.
The return of artifacts that were looted in the colonial-era has become an increasingly pressing issue for Western nations, with France and Germany taking the lead in the repatriation of Benin Bronzes.
The repatriated artifacts are to be displayed in the Edo Museum of West African Art, Benin City, which is set to open in 2025. The museum will be established on an excavation site next to the ancient Oba’s palace.
Currently, Nigeria is holding artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin in the National Commission for Museums and Monuments’ collections and museums.
With the bulk of the Benin Bronzes on display abroad, the country is hoping to repatriate their cultural heritage and display them in their new museum, which would mark a post-colonial victory for Nigeria.