A Cambridge University college has handed over an artifact looted by British soldiers to Nigeria. Jesus College is the first U.K. institution to give back one of the artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes. On Wednesday, the college returned a looted bronze cockerel known as the “Okukur” to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
The statue, which is a Benin Bronze, is among artifacts stolen from the Kingdom of Benin in modern-day Nigeria by British soldiers in 1897. It was given to Jesus College in 1905 by the father of a student, according to BBC. In 2016, the college removed it from public view after students protested.
The college subsequently set up a working group that came to the conclusion that the statue belongs to the Oba of Benin, head of the historic Eweka dynasty of the Benin Empire. The empire centered on Benin City in modern-day Nigeria, according to the Associated Press.
A ceremony has since been held at the college to sign the handover documents, BBC reported. Sonita Alleyne, master of Jesus College, said returning the artifact was the “right thing to do” as it was of cultural and spiritual significance to the people of Nigeria.
“We truly hope that others will expedite the return of our artworks, which in many cases are of religious importance to us,” His Royal Majesty, Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II, said when the handover decision was announced. The Nigerian government has also welcomed the return of the statue. “We thank Jesus College for being a trailblazer and we look forward to a similar return of our artefacts by other institutions that are in possession of them,” Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the Minister for Information and Culture, said in a statement.
The return of the artifact comes as people call on Western countries to return artifacts looted during colonization. Benin City was the capital of Benin Kingdom, one of the most highly developed states in Africa, when it was ransacked and burnt down in 1897 by British forces. Its destruction in what became known as the Benin Expedition of 1897 led to the fall of the once successful and well-recognized Benin Kingdom located in what is now southern Nigeria.
Britain’s punitive expedition did not only lead to the deaths of gallant chiefs but also took away various works of art including Ivory and bronze works. Today, most of these works of art are held in prominent museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum.
Two of the Benin Bronzes were in 2014 returned by a British citizen, Mark Walker, leading to calls for repatriation of more artifacts. Reports this week said that the Nigerian government had written to the British Museum, which holds the largest collection of Benin Bronzes, asking for the return of the artifacts.
France is also set to return 26 Benin Bronzes which are on display at the Quai Branly Museum until the end of the month before they are sent to Nigeria, AP reported.