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The driving forces behind the return of the Benin Bronze

One hundred and twenty-four (124) years after it was stolen, a Benin Bronze is headed to its rightful place in Nigeria from Jesus College in Cambridge England. The sculpture which was looted by British troops in 1897 was spotted by the school’s first-ever black students, Amatey Doku and Ore Ogunbiyi in 2015. They began researching its history, tracing its origin to Nigeria and advocating for its return.

The “okukor” Benin Bronze was handed over to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments on the 27th of October in a ceremony completing the process. The University of Aberdeen is also following suit and returning a Benin Bronze depicting the head of an Oba.

Ore Ogunbiyi, Cambridge University alumna, author and correspondent at The Economist and one of the black students who set the return in motion, told The Republic, ‘I’m still in disbelief that something we fought for so long is finally happening. In those early days, our case for repatriation was deliberately made to seem so complex but has shown itself to be much simpler: it does not belong to us, so give it back. It was a truly joyous occasion and, I hope that the college and other institutions never again shy away from setting precedents, especially when they are the right ones.’ 

Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, the immediate 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 May 2019, the college set up the “Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP)” made up of fellows, staff and student representatives to explore the historical basis, legality and morality of the College’s ownership of the artefact. 

They examined evidence showing that the statue was looted directly from the Court of Benin as part of the punitive British expedition of 1897 and was given to the College in 1905 by the father of a student.

The University of Cambridge is among the first English institutions to repatriate art looted during colonialism. This act sets a precedent that looted artefacts can and should be returned to their rightful homes. 

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