Cambridge University Finally Takes Down Nigerian Artefact, ‘Okukor’, Stolen by Colonialists

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  • May repatriate Benin bronze work
    Edo Govt insists on its return

Iyobosa Uwagiaren with agency report

A Cambridge University college has bowed to pressure from its students and removed a bronze cockerel from its main hall after protests that the looted sculpture celebrated a racist and colonial past.

Jesus College said that it would consider repatriating the cockerel, known as the “Okukor”, to Nigeria, reported UK-based Times newspaper wednesday.

Students had demanded in a vote that the bronze work be taken down and returned to the Benin royal palace in Nigeria.
The college said wednesday that the rightful location of the “Benin bronze” was a complex matter requiring further discussion. The move could revive the campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the 19th-century colonialist, from Oriel College, Oxford University. It could also embolden campaigners trying to repatriate other cultural artefacts, including the Elgin Marbles, which Greece wants to be returned from the British Museum.

The cockerel was bequeathed to Jesus College in 1930 by an army captain, George William Neville, whose son had attended the college. It has symbolic importance because the college coat of arms features three black cockerels with red combs and wattles.

Last month the college students’ union approved a motion supporting the repatriation of the “okukor”. The debate became so heated that at one point, a student snapped: “The opinion of two white men is not valid.” The debate was opened by Amatey Doku, a Ghanaian student, who said that the “okukor” was stolen on a punitive expedition in reprisal for the killing of British traders, in which the Kingdom of Benin was destroyed and 3,000 pieces of art were stolen. He proposed that the college commissions a new work and hold a repatriation ceremony at which it would be returned.

A Benin bronze appreciation committee has already made contact with the Nigerian government which, the meeting was told, supports the proposal to repatriate the cockerel.

Another student, Ore Ogunbiyi, who seconded the motion, told the meeting: “We spoke to a bronze repatriation expert who said that grown men cried after the return of pieces in 2014.”

Yesterday, in a statement issued through Cambridge University, the college said: “Jesus College acknowledges the contribution made by students in raising the important but complex question of the rightful location of its Benin bronze, in response to which it has permanently removed the “Okukor” from its hall. The college commits to work actively with the wider university and to commit resources to new initiatives with Nigerian heritage and museum authorities to discuss and determine the best future for the Okukor, including the question of repatriation.”

The college’s original emblem was the five wounds of Jesus, but in the 16th century, that had become a symbol of rebellions protesting at the suppression of monasteries. It is believed to have been replaced in 1575 by a shield with the personal coat of arms of John Alcock, the Bishop of Ely and its founder, featuring black cockerels and ten crowns.

The decision comes after a campaign to remove a statue of Rhodes from the frontage of Oriel College, Oxford. Oriel initially offered a lengthy consultation over its future and applied for permission to remove a separate plaque in his honour but reversed its decision after widespread criticism that its actions amounted to rewriting history.

Students have also campaigned to have a monument to Queen Victoria removed from Royal Holloway, University of London.
Other than okukor, several other Benin artefacts cast in bronze or ivory were carted away from the ancient kingdom by Portuguese and British colonialists. Today, they litter museums in Britain, France and America and are believed to be priceless.

One notable work of art is the FESTAC Mask that depicts the esoteric beauty of Queen Idia of Benin at the height of her reign in the 19th century. The original masterpiece made of ivory has remained in Britain since it was looted in 1897 during the Benin massacre.
A replica of the mask was used as the symbol of the 2nd Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) that was hosted by Nigeria in 1977, when people of African descent from all over the world showcased their rich cultural heritage.

The homes in FESTAC Town in Lagos were built to accommodate participants during the two-week festival that featured artists from the whole of Africa, America, the Caribbean and other parts of the world with people of the black race.
Efforts to get the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, to comment on the possible repatriation of Okukor proved abortive. Calls and texts to his phone were unanswered wednesday.

However, the Edo State Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Mr. Kassim Afegbua, advised those who carted away Benin artefacts to return them.

He said: “When one of the descendants of the colonialist, Dr. Adrain Mark-Walker visited Benin City in 2014, they returned one of the stolen artefacts and reacting to the gesture, the governor, Adams Oshiomhole, said that was a good first step and urged others who are in possession of the other stolen items of the Edo ancestry to follow suit.”

  • Teejay, Abuja

    All the slaves taken from Nigeria must as well be returned.

  • Jon West

    Let us be careful about the danger of repeating negative history. In the 1970s, after decades of fighting for the return of a major Benin artefact from the British Musuem to the National Museum in Lagos, the artefact was reluctantly returned by the British. However, when the Queen visited, the naive quisling military dictator, Yakubu Nanven Gowon, directed the curator of the National museum of antiquities to present the retrieved artefact to the Queen. The curator was naturally horrified and demurred, explaining the implications of the gift. But under the threat of losing his job and perhaps much more , he capitulated. Today we are back to the trenches, asking the British to return the artefacts that Gowon gave to the Queen.
    The trouble with Africa is that we always give away our heritage and resources, without thinking about the implications, because perhaps because we have never had good leaders who will inculcate these values of preservation of cultural and resource heritage to our people. The Indians lost the Crown Jewels to the British and will never get them back, because they are embedded in the Queens crown. However, is it imaginable that these jewels will be represented to the Queen after they are returned to India? The low quality of the military rulers we have had is the consequence of our serial underdevelopment, but we are still busy deifying them, like drug addicts in a dopamine-induced trance.
    By the way, okukor is Igbo for chicken and there are linguistic relationships between the Bini people and the Igbos, so let us not start another unnecessary Nigeriam argument.

    • frforka

      Well spoken! The problem of Africa is Africa.

  • vic

    united kingdom should be ashamed of displaying such artifacts in public places as if in quest of seeking affirmation that the british were indeed colonial thieves and will remain colonial thieves and artifact looters of the world.

  • Dr ebenuwa

    British small in size but mighty in integrating systematic thiefry

  • return all stolen loot sharp sharp

    • okenwa

      Including oil wells in eastern nigeria.

      • remm ieet

        Can they really return all they stole from us? They took too much, my brother!

        • okenwa

          If they return all, they will be the poorest country in the world.

  • Arabakpura

    This looting was learnt from the British! It is good that they have begun to yield up their loot!

    • okenwa

      They must pay interest for showing that okukor to thier children for ages.

      • BankyMons

        Is Okukor the Benin name for chicken? The Igbos call it Okuku and the Ikwerres call is Ochichi.

        • okenwa

          I dont know what is okuku what i know as igbo man is okukor with fullstop under ‘o’ and ‘u’ but what am saying is that they must pay benin kingdom where they stole the okukor from, for showing what is okukor to thier children. However how you argue it ‘okukor’ is igbo name for chicken. You can ask your father or mother.

          • otigbu

            are they even sure of were it came from,the igbo-ukwu of those days are as good as the benis in art work, in benin they call it ohuhor while Igbos call it okukor. in fact there were some cultural interaction between the benis and the igbos cum igalas.but politics has changed a lot of those relationships and turned Nigerians against themselves

          • BankyMons

            Absolutely. The ruling class of Onitsha are Binis while other villages in Onitsha such as Obikporo people are Igalas. This is even a recent history. The majority of the people who live along (on both sides) the River Niger, Anambra, Ezu and Oyi have ancestry in Bini and Iselle-Uku.

          • longben

            The palace of the Oba of Benin where Okukor was looted from is located at Ogbe Quarters in Benin and not in Igbo-Uku.

        • Okafor

          The British used local soldiers to invade Benin, Igbo, Yoruba, Igala and other kingdoms. Maybe an Igbo soldier was there who named ‘okukor’.

          • BankyMons

            Thanks Okafor. You seem to be the one that understood my question – perhaps I should have rephrased it. Well it’s called Okuku (Anambra / Omambala people) and Okuko (mainly by people from Old Imo state). All I wanted to know was whether the Binis call it okuko(r) as well. Thanks everyone for responding to my question.

          • longben

            Its called “Okhorkhor” in Edo. Okhorkhor or Okukor dont matter now, just return the loot.

        • otigbu

          igbo call it okukor not okuku

        • Dayo Akom

          The Yorubas call it Akuko

          • BankyMons

            Hmmmm. Thanks! This is interesting

        • Adesuwa

          The Benin name is ‘okhokho’. This had probably been anglicised just as Oba Ovonramwen is called Oba ‘Overami’ in British history.

          • BankyMons

            Thank you Adesuwa.