It would be an enormous mistake for the University to comply with the demands of the royals​English-speaking Wikipedia user Warofdreams / Wikimedia Commons /

If you climb to the top floor of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, you will find some of the most contested artefacts in Britain – maybe the world. In the right corner sits a row of brass heads, ever so smaller than life-size, all with slightly quizzical looks – as if they too are surprised about the predicament they find themselves in.

The story of how they got here is less than straightforward. Copper and zinc ore for the sculptures was dug up throughout the 16th century in the German Rhineland, where it made its way to Portugal. There it was smelted into bronze Manilla bracelets – the common currency of the slave trade. Winding their way down the West African coast, the Portuguese exchanged these bracelets with African kings for human chattel.

In the Kingdom of Benin (now in modern-day Nigeria), these bracelets were crafted into the bronzes by artisans so skilled that some Victorian anthropologists refused to believe the artefacts were created independently of European craftsmen. Then in 1897, almost 10,000 of these bronzes were looted from the royal palace in Benin by British soldiers. Now, many want to see this historical wrong set right.

“As is so often the case with the culture wars, both sides miss the point”

These Bronzes and the wrangling over their proposed return to Nigeria has sparked disputes not only between the British and Nigerian governments but within each of these countries too. In Britain, academics and assorted members of the commentariat on the left and right feud over them. One side thinks of the other as racist, empire-nostalgics who greedily squat over these sullied treasures like some gammony gollum. The other is branded by their opponents as woke and naive – supposedly ripping exquisite art from its security in Britain’s museums and throwing it away back into the heart of darkness. As is so often the case with the culture wars, both sides miss the point.

The University has found itself entangled in an impossible situation. First, in December 2022 the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology had agreed to hand the Bronzes back to Nigeria. The campaigns by students and academics had placed significant pressure on museums to hand back the looted artefacts. But after the Nigerian president’s announcement that the bronzes would become the property of the Oba (the Yoruban word for King), repatriation has rightly been paused while a new plan is put in place.

Predictably, the royal family of Benin responded to Cambridge’s decision with consternation. According to a Prince speaking on behalf of the family, the University had been “duped” into planning to return the bronzes to a state-funded museum rather than the royal family itself. Instead, he claims, the royal family are the sole and rightful claimants to the bronzes.

“the trading of slaves and the pillaging of cities are both dependent on a violent deprivation of rights”

It would, despite their insistence to the contrary, be an enormous mistake for the University to comply with the demands of the royals.

There is, ultimately, little difference between how the royals acquired the material for the statues and how they were brought to Britain. After all, the trading of slaves and the pillaging of cities are both dependent on a violent deprivation of rights. Any property acquired through either process is thoroughly illegitimate.

When so much effort is spent litigating historical links to slavery, it is puzzling that there is relative silence over this matter. In fairness, the University’s choice to pause the repatriation is at least a tacit recognition of this. Yet even so, there has been little to no acknowledgement of this situation by those campaigning for repatriation. For some, it seems, repatriation must occur no matter who the recipients are. Britain and, by extension, Cambridge must wash their hands regardless of the cost. Out, damned spot.

While this promise of absolution may be morally satisfying, this is simply an illusion. It is a fundamentally flawed approach which would undermine other well-intentioned efforts to right historical wrongs. For one, it gives fodder to critics who argue that these campaigns fundamentally fail to understand history.


Mountain View

The repatriation of Benin Bronzes

More importantly, it would simply be retrograde to acquiesce to the royal demands. The bronzes belong to those who made and paid for them – not simply those who last staked an illegitimate claim to them.

It is, of course, an impossibility to identify and compensate all those who were deprived in the making of the bronzes. But we must insist on a productive compromise that guarantees ownership of these artefacts by the Nigerian government on behalf of its people – not their erstwhile feudal rulers.

With the royals mounting an aggressive campaign to legitimise their claim, even if the Nigerian government shifts their own position on the custodianship of the bronzes, we simply cannot guarantee that the bronzes will remain on display to the public.

We must go further and demand that the royals rescind their claim to the bronzes in perpetuity as part of any agreement to return the bronzes. Anything else would simply be a failure to secure the justice which the campaigns have fought hard to achieve.