Master Sonita Alleyne OBE called the handover “morally the correct thing to do”Jesus College Cambridge

On Wednesday (27/10) Jesus College became the first institution in the world to return a Benin Bronze, presenting it to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

Delegates from Nigeria and Benin took part in a ceremony held at Jesus College to celebrate the rightful return of the Bronze after a long period of discussion following demands in 2016 that the statue be repatriated. Until 2016, the statue was displayed in the College dining hall.

The Benin Bronzes, a group of over a thousand pieces of Benin artworks dating from the thirteenth century onwards, were looted from the Court of Benin, now part of Nigeria, by the 1897 British Expedition to Benin. Jesus College has held Okukor, a bronze statue of a cockerel, since 1905, when the College received it as a gift from the father of a student.

In 2019, at the beginning of current Master Sonita Alleyne OBE’s term, it was decided that the Bronze would be returned to Nigeria. The date for the handover ceremony was set in December 2020 after the Charity Commission of England and Wales authorised the statue’s transfer to the Oba of Benin.

His Royal Highness Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, the younger brother of the Oba of Benin, said: “For coming to the conclusion that it’s immoral to retain such items, Jesus College is challenging the erroneous argument that stolen art cannot be returned.

“We are grateful for the student body who initiated the efforts for the return of the bronze. We are also grateful for the work of the Legacy of Slavery Working Party and most importantly we must thank Sonita for the promptness with which she decided Okukor is a royal ancestral heirloom.”

In an exclusive interview with Varsity, Ms Alleyne celebrated the “historic occasion” of the handover ceremony, which has been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, after the 2019 decision to return the statue by the College’s Legacies of Slavery Working Party (LSWP).

She told Varsity “In my first couple of weeks as Master, we held a society meeting of all the Fellows [...] and had the interim report for the Legacies of Slavery Working Party. It was a pretty much unanimous decision that this was morally the correct thing to do, so it was a very swift decision, and we then went about getting permissions from the Charity Commission, and then Covid struck.

“These few days are the first days that the delegation from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, and the delegation from the Royal Palace of Benin, have been able to travel to the UK to engage further.”

The handover ceremony featured music and speakers such as Professor Abba Isa Tijani, the Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, and Jesus Fellow Dr Veronique Mottier, who chairs the Legacies of Slavery Working Party.


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Jesus College’s LSWP was established in May 2019 to explore the historical, legal and moral status of the College’s ownership of the Bronze. The Party, consisting of Fellows, staff and Jesus students, examined evidence of the Bronze’s provenance which showed that it was looted directly from the Court of Benin.

Professor Tijani said, “It’s an honour to be here at Jesus College and to be part of this ceremony to do what’s right. We are very happy to be part of this process.

“We want to enable Nigerians to see what belongs to them – objects of their history, of cultural and religious importance, that have been away for so long. We would like other museums and institutions across the world to take this opportunity and follow suit.”

Dr Véronique Mottier, Chair of the LSWP, said: “I think I can speak for the entire LSWP when I say that this is a moment of mixed emotions. We are all thrilled at seeing this day arrive, when the Bronze is finally returning home, but we are also painfully aware of having deprived its rightful owners for so long of its presence, and offer our heartfelt apologies for this historic wrong. ”

During the delegation’s visit to the UK, Aberdeen University’s museum will also return to Nigeria a Bronze it currently holds. Hundreds of bronzes remain in public and private collections across Britain, with the British Museum holding 900 objects, the largest collection of Benin bronzes in the world.

George Neville, who led the 1897 attack, donated Okukor to Jesus College in 1905 as the cockerel is a symbol of the College, appearing three times on the crest of its founder Bishop John Alcock.

The bronze was displayed in the College’s hall until March 2016, when, following a campaign by the Jesus College Students’ Union, the College announced it would be repatriated.

“We just want to do justice to this moment,” Ms Alleyne told Varsity.