The recent row over the rightful location of a Benin bronze cockerel, which until last week stood in the hall of a Cambridge University college, has again brought to the fore the calls for repatriation of stolen artefacts, writes Demola Ojo

During the week, the Jesus College of the Cambridge University in England bowed to pressure from its students and removed a bronze cockerel from its dining hall after protests that the looted sculpture celebrated a colonial past.

The cockerel known as the ‘Okukor’ was taken from Benin City in Nigeria during a British naval expedition in 1897 to avenge the deaths of nine officers killed during a trade dispute between the Oba of Benin and Britain.

Britain sent a force of 500 men to destroy the city, with one eye-witness describing how the British troops turned their newly manufactured Maxim machine guns on the local defenders, who fell from the trees ‘like nuts’.

After ten days of fierce fighting, the British burnt down the palace and looted the royal treasures: delicate ivory carvings and magnificent copper alloy sculptures and plaques – now known as the Benin Bronzes were carted away.

After the sacking of Benin, the bronzes were taken by the British to pay for the expedition. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office sold them off, and around 900 ended up in the world’s greatest museums, including the British Museum, which has one of the largest sets.

One of the sculptures, the bronze cockerel known as Okukor, ended up at Jesus College after it was donated by Captain George William Neville, a former British Army officer whose son had been a student there. The gift was fitting; the cockerel is the mascot of the college, after the surname of its founder, Bishop John Alcock.

The sculpture in question depicts a proud, strong animal – an embodiment of power. Though its value is not clear because so few bronzes have been sold recently, in 1989 a bronze memorial head from Benin was auctioned at Christie’s in London for more than £1 million.

The Benin Bronzes are a set of artworks created by the Edo people for centuries starting from the 13th Century to celebrate the Benin Kingdom. When colonialists first discovered the pieces adorning the Oba’s royal palace, they were amazed that such incredible artwork could be created by people so ‘primitive’.

When the Benin Bronzes first arrived in Europe, they transformed the way people saw Africa. Europeans were surprised that Africans — a people whom they assumed to be backward — could make such refined artwork, as is clear from the words of Charles Hercules Read, a curator from the British Museum, who secured the collection.

“It need scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art, we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous.”

Today they remain some of the most celebrated artworks to emerge from Africa, but much like Greece’s Elgin Marbles, they are mired in controversy due to the circumstances in which they were acquired.

Estimates point to as few as fifty pieces still remaining in Nigeria although approximately 2,400 pieces are held in European and American collections. The two largest collections of Benin Bronzes are located in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and in the British Museum in London.

Jesus College said that it would consider repatriating the Okukor to Nigeria. The college said on Wednesday that its rightful location was a complex matter requiring further discussion.

For many however, the ‘rightful location’ of these artefacts is back home in Nigeria. One of them is renowned Nobel laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka. Soyinka has spent years canvassing for the repatriation of artefacts back to Nigeria and even took matters into his own hands at a point.

In 1978, he was made aware of the existence of a bronze head in a private collection in Brazil – similar to the disputed ‘Ori Olokun’ discovered by the famous German archaeologist Leo Frobenius in 1910, which now stood in the Ife Museum, but of far greater quality.

In his memoir “You Must Set Forth at Dawn” (2007), Soyinka recalls how, in a spirit of cultural duty, and with the knowledge of the Nigerian authorities, he mounted a “guerrilla raid” with a group of friends, stealing the object from the apartment in question in near-farcical circumstances, and removing it to the Senegalese capital Dakar, where experts proclaimed it genuine.

Suspicious, however, of the lightness of the object, Soyinka examined it further to find the letters “BM” stamped on the back: it was a British Museum replica, once sold in the museum’s shop. Soyinka then declared the British Museum’s head to be the real ‘Ori Olokun’.

The head Soyinka refers to in the British Museum is known as the Ife Head. It is one of eighteen copper alloy sculptures that were unearthed in 1938 at the Wumonije Compound in Ife. It is dated back to the 13th Century, before any European contact had taken place with the local population. The realism and sophisticated craftsmanship of the objects challenged Western conceptions of African art at the time. A year after its finding, the Ife Head was taken to the British Museum.

As recently as two weeks ago, the recovery of these artefacts formed the main thrust of Soyinka’s address at the Ooni of Ife’s Palace during the declaration of Ife as a Tourism Zone by the 51st Ooni, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi (Ojajaj II).

Soyinka who was represented by Professor Wale Adeniran said “…Another matter close to my heart and which I suggest Kabiyesi accords attention, is the retrieval of Ife antiquities and art objects illegally carted away to foreign lands especially the Ori Olokun.

“In this regard, we must be ready to ensure that we are not given replicas in place of the original, and to assist in this enterprise, some names have been suggested that Kabiyesi could constitute to undertake this task that will be multi-racial and multi-national in scope.”

Some of the names mentioned by the Nobel laureate include former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Emeka Anyaoku, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Koffi Annan, a distinguished Africanist at the Yale University, Henry Leegate, Professor Bolanle Awe, Prof Oyayi, Mr Edison Arantes do Nascimento a.k.a. Pele of Brazil and representatives of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

Soyinka, in further declaration of his support for Ife being declared a Tourism Zone, reminisced about “the golden days of 1970’s” when the then University of Ife used to organise Ife Festival of the Arts.

According to him, the university – now Obafemi Awolowo University in its current incarnation – has a major role to play in sustaining research into the history of Ile-Ife. “In this regard, we have to bring back the programme of the study of archaeology at the undergraduate and post graduate levels.

“ A lot of archaeological excavations still need to be undertaken that will reveal further information about the ancient civilisation of Ile-Ife.” He encouraged “…sons of Ile-Ife, Yoruba and the Diaspora” to endow a chair on Archaeology at the university.

At a time when the Nigerian government is seeking options to diversify the Nigerian economy and reduce its dependence on petroleum products, “selling culture” as Prof Pat Utomi describes it, has been put forward as a rewarding enterprise. Gaining possession of lost national treasures is one of the planks this can be built on.

As Prof Soyinka noted in his address, when these artefacts have been returned, they will encourage an “endless procession of pilgrims and tourists” to converge from far and near.