Benin bronze row: Cambridge college removes cockerel
University agrees that statue should be taken down following calls from students for it to be repatriated
A controversial bronze cockerel that was looted from Africa in the 19th century and has long stood in the hall of a Cambridge college has been removed following calls from students for it to be repatriated.
The university agreed on Tuesday that the statue, one of the Benin bronzes, should be taken down from the hall in Jesus College and that discussions should get under way to decide its future, including possible repatriation to Nigeria.
Last month, in a move that echoed the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford to remove a statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes, the Jesus College student union (JCSU) passed a motion saying that the sculpture, which is properly known as the okukor, should be returned.
While Oriel College in Oxford, site of the Rhodes statue, turned down student demands to remove it, Cambridge announced, following a meeting of the council at Jesus College, that the cockerel would be removed permanently.
In a statement of support for students, a university spokesperson 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.”
A statement said the college would now work with the wider university and commit resources to develop new initiatives with Nigerian heritage and museum authorities “to discuss and determine the best future for the okukor, including the question of repatriation”. The spokesperson added: “The college strongly endorses the inclusion of students from all relevant communities in such discussion.”
The cockerel was among hundreds of artworks plundered from the Benin empire, now part of Nigeria, after a punitive British naval expedition in 1897 that destroyed the kingdom. Nigeria has repeatedly called for all the Benin bronzes – which it says are part of its cultural heritage – to be repatriated in the same way that Greece has demanded the return of the Parthenon marbles.
Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones hailed the statue as an artistic masterpiece which had been inappropriately displayed in the hall at Jesus College “as a kind of heraldic mascot”. The British Museum has a considerable collection of similar bronzes (though it points out they are actually made of brass), which were created between the 15th and late 19th centuries by craftsmen working for the royal court of the ruler (or Oba) of Benin, then one of the most powerful kingdoms in west Africa.
In Cambridge, however, the debate among students was less about art and more about history, politics and Britain’s colonial past. According to a report by Cambridge’s student newspaper, Varsity, the proposal that Jesus College students voted on said: “The contemporary political culture surrounding colonialism and social justice, combined with the university’s global agenda, offers a perfect opportunity for the college to benefit from this gesture [of returning the statue to Nigeria].”
Meanwhile in Oxford, students campaigning for the removal of the Rhodes statue are staging what they are calling a “mass march for decolonisation” with an alternative walking tour of Oxford. Hundreds of protesters are expected to take part in Wednesday’s demonstration, which will take in other buildings in Oxford that campaigners say reflect the university’s links with Britain’s colonial past.
The tour will kick off at Oriel College before moving on to Radcliffe Square outside All Souls College’s Codrington library, which is named after a 17th-century slave owner who left a bequest to the college.
Protesters will then move on to Rhodes House in Oxford, home of the Rhodes Scholarships and Rhodes Trust, and finally to Wellington Square, where the university administration is based, to hand in a series of demands.
Campaigners are calling on the university to address curriculum change and low levels of representation of black and minority ethnic students. Earlier this year, David Cameron, who studied at Brasenose College, said it was “striking” that Oxford University’s 2014 intake of more than 2,500 included only 27 black students.
The Rhodes Must Fall campaign suffered a blow in January when Oriel College ruled against removing the statue of the controversial figure amid claims that it was being influenced by “a dictatorship of donors” who threatened to withdraw funds.
Campaigners have, however, taken heart from Harvard, where the law school has decided to alter its official shield following months of protest at the symbol’s ties to an 18th-century slaveholder. Welcoming the move, a Rhodes Must Fall spokesman said: “It’s a different place but what it shows is that it is possible for institutions to take responsibility for the past, and it shows a possible path forward for Oxford.”
The Rhodes Must Fall campaign declined to comment on the Benin bronze decision at Cambridge but welcomed the wider debate that had been triggered. “We see this as the beginning of a reckoning with Britain’s involvement with its colonial past,” a spokesman said.
An Oxford University spokesperson said the university supported the right to lawful, peaceful protest and reiterated its invitation to campaigners to engage in a joint discussion about current issues of representation facing the university.
“We have invited Rhodes Must Fall to discuss a number of issues including the need to address the representation of BME students at the university; the ongoing process of curriculum development and welfare provision for BME students.
“We hope they will accept the opportunity to work with staff and other students on creating a more inclusive university community.”
By Sally Weale, and originally published in the UK’s Guardian