It was sometime in the year 1897. A 1, 200-strong British punitive expedition force under Admiral Sir Henry Rawson had just struck and a once proud West African Kingdom of Benin laid in ruins, as it licked its wounds. Rawson’s troops were responding to a humiliating defeat suffered by a previous British invasion force under Acting Consul General James Philips. One of the aftermaths of that invasion was the looting of much of the kingdom’s art, their subsequent relocation to Britain.
Among these was a bronze cockerel, called “Okukor”, which had long stood in the hall of a Cambridge college until its removal following calls from students for it to be repatriated. The cockerel was said to have been bequeathed to Cambridge’s Jesus College in 1930 by an army captain, George William Neville, who was a student of the college.
Apparently, the university had bowed to pressure from the students on Tuesday that the statue be taken down from the Jesus College hall. The university also agreed that discussions to decide its future should get under way. And this includes possible repatriation to Nigeria. But then, the discussions became complex when the issue of the bronze statues rightful ownership came up.
Indeed, the bronze cockerel’s repatriation was what the college students’ union had asked for last month when it approved a motion on the subject. It was a Ghanaian student, Amatey Doku, who opened the debate on the bronze cockerel, arguing that it was stolen during the 1897 punitive expedition in reprisal for the killing of British traders, which left the Benin Kingdom in ruins and 3,000 pieces of its art stolen. Doku had proposed that the college not only hold a repatriation ceremony with a view to returning the work, but also commission a new work to replace it.
His motion was seconded by a Nigerian student, Ore Ogunbiyi, who told the meeting: “We spoke to a bronze repatriation expert who said that grown men cried after the return of pieces in 2014.”
In its response, the college had in a statement issued through Cambridge University 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 bronze cockerel’s symbolic importance to the college is based on the fact that its coat of arms features three black cockerels with red combs and wattles. But its original emblem was the five wounds of Jesus. But because it had become a symbol of rebellions protesting at the suppression of monasteries in the 16th century, it was reportedly 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.
A Benin bronze appreciation committee has already reached out to the Nigerian government, whose support for the proposal to repatriate the cockerel, it supposed, should be taken for granted. “Okukor” is not the only of the several other Benin artefacts it wants back to its shores. Nigeria had famously and previously called for the return of the mask depicting Benin’s Queen Idia at the height of her reign in the 19th century. The mask, whose replica became the second Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture (FESTAC’77) symbol, has its original ivory masterpiece in a British Museum.
The fate of “Okukor” reignites the debate on the fate of several priceless bronze or ivory artefacts carted away from the ancient kingdom by Portuguese and British colonialists, which today litter museums in Britain, France and America.
While there had been no official response from the Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed, when efforts were made to contact him on “Okukor’s” possible repatriation, the Nigerian government’s stance on the issue has always been clear. It has repeatedly called for the repatriation of all the Benin bronzes, which it claims as part of its cultural heritage.
This was only being echoed in the words of the Edo State Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Kassim Afegbua, who advised those who carted away Benin artefacts to return them. “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,” he recalled.
The “Okukor” debate echoes the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford aimed at removing a statue of the Victorian colonialist Cecil Rhodes from the frontage of Oriel College of Oxford University. But in the case of Oriel College, the students’ demands were turned down. Oriel had at first offered a lengthy consultation over the statue’s future and applied for permission to remove a separate plaque in his honour. But this decision had to be reversed after widespread criticism that its actions amounted to rewriting history.
The hornets’ nest of campaigns for the repatriation of other cultural artefacts had long been stirred. Among these were the call for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece from the British Museum, a similar call by Egypt for the return of the Rosetta stone, which has hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek inscriptions in it and is believed to hold the key to deciphering hieroglyphics and Egypt’s past and India’s call for the return of Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was seized by the British Empire’s East India Company as one of the spoils of war.
Other notable similar campaigns are: the Egypt-driven campaign for the return of the Nefertiti Bust by a German foundation, which sees it as “the ambassador of Egypt in Berlin”; the call by Turkey’s aggressive campaign to reclaim its antiquities (including the Old Fisherman from Aphrodisias and Sion Treasure) from the world’s largest museums including the Met, the Louvre and the Pergamon; the campaign by the Iraqi government to reclaim the Iraqi Jewish artefacts looted during the US-led 2003 invasion and the demand by the Chinese government for the return of its imperial treasures by the British Museum.