Why Jesus College shouldn’t have returned its Benin bronze

28 October 2021

5:23 AM

28 October 2021

5:23 AM

Jesus College Cambridge can claim a world first. It is the first institution, at least in the twenty-first century, to return a so-called Benin Bronze because it was looted in a British punitive raid in 1897 on the historic Kingdom of Benin, now part of the territory of Nigeria. The College’s Master Sonita Alleyne has today handed over its Okukor – a brass statue of a cockerel that took pride of place in the college’s dining hall peering over generations of students – to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

Germany announced in May that its public museums would return their hundreds of Benin artefacts; Dan Hicks — Curator of World Archaeology at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and a professor at the university — is itching to return that museum’s 145 Benin items; the Church of England is ‘in discussions’ to return its two Benin bronzes, even though these were gifts sculpted in the 1980s so could not possibly have been looted. All these objects are however still safely ensconced in their Western homes; only Jesus’s cockerel has so far gone back – but this is nothing to be proud of.

Jesus’s Okukor was donated to the College in 1905 by Captain George William Neville – the father of a Jesus student. In January 1897 a party of nine white colonial officials and 250 or so African porters set out for the Kingdom of Benin. They were ambushed and seven of the colonialists, alongside many African porters, were killed. In retaliation the British launched a punitive expedition against the Kingdom of Benin. British forces captured Benin City and the palace of the Oba (king) of Benin in 1897 and the territory of the kingdom was incorporated into the British colony that would become Nigeria. The Oba’s palace and other ceremonial buildings were richly ordained with ornate ivory carvings and bronzes predominantly dating from the sixteenth century onwards. These were taken, along with a huge quantity of uncarved ivory, by the British forces with the justification that the sale of these items would cover the costs of the expedition. In truth, many of the looted items ended in the private possession of British officers including Captain Neville.

Why then should Jesus College not return an item that had undoubtedly been taken without consent, albeit 124 years ago? The Kingdom of Benin was a slaving state and grew rich on the back of the Atlantic slave trade. Its forces captured other Africans and sold them to European slave traders. Slavery, as well as human sacrifice, was still practiced when the kingdom fell in 1897. Professor Hicks, whose book Brutish Museums – out this week in paperback – is the seminal text that is pushing the current drive for restitution, himself acknowledges this:

‘What then became… of the Oba’s harem, slaves and servants?… The Kingdom grew in power and scope during its involvement in European and transatlantic trade from the 16th century, at first with Portuguese traders, and later British and French — central among which was the slave trade.’

Other than slaves, Benin’s other significant export was ivory. It sold vast quantities to European traders.

Professor Jeremy Black, a historian of eighteenth-century Britain who has published widely on the Atlantic slave trade, argues that, ‘the Kingdom of Benin grew rich through slavery. Slaving certainly played a larger role in the economy of Benin than it did for that of Britain, probably a very much larger role.’ The very metal used to make the Benin bronzes, coming from horseshoe shaped brass manillas manufactured in Europe, was obtained by the kingdom in exchange for slaves. If contemporary Britain needs to make amends for its role in slavery, then why not the heirs of the Kingdom of Benin?

The Benin bronzes are every bit as much an expression of the wealth created by slavery than a plantation house in the American southor an English stately home built on the proceeds of West Indies sugar estates. The National Trust now gives health warnings for any of its properties with the slightest association with slavery; all visitors should acknowledge that today’s beauty was obtained via the suffering of yesterday’s unfree labour. Acknowledging our past wrongs may well be the right thing to do, yet this principle should surely be applicable to all. Why is there no moral opprobrium associated with the manufacture of the Benin bronzes, only to their subsequent taking? The West’s past actions should be subject to the moral standards of the 2020s, but no other societies seem to be subject to the same standards.

Some items taken in the 1897 raids were returned to Nigeria before this century. In the 1950s the British Museum transferred some artefacts from its substantial Benin collection to the National Museum of Nigeria. Without being formally deaccessioned at least two of these objects, brass plaques, left the Nigerian museum and re-entered the international art market. In 1991 they were bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In June this year the Met announced it would be returning these objects due to their dubious post war pedigree. Standards in Nigerian museums have improved in recent decades, but can we be sure that this does not remain a risk?

Jesus’s actions today may create a feeling of self-congratulatory wellbeing amongst the College’s leadership and bien pensant opinion more widely. But past wrongs cannot be solely attributed to the West; we do not have a monopoly on guilt.<//>

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