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Jesus College announces the return of Benin Bronze statue to Nigeria

Recommended by their Legacies of Slavery Working Party

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Jesus College have announced today that they are seeking to return the Benin Bronze statue of a cockerel, the motif of Jesus College, back to Nigeria.

The statue is known by the people of Benin as the Okukor.

In their announcement, they stated that: "This royal ancestral heirloom" belongs to the "current Oba at the Court of Benin". The exact details of the repatriation yet to be confirmed.

The College came to own the statue when it was bequeathed to them in 1930 by a former student, George William Neville. Neville had served as a captain in the British Army during the 1897 expedition when it was stolen.

Jesus has been under pressure to repatriate the stolen object for a number of years, with Jesus JCR voting unanimously in 2016 to “support the Benin Bronze Appreciation Committee’s proposal that the Benin Bronze Cockerel in the Hall [be] repatriated to Nigeria.” The College bowed to some pressure at the time, removing the cockerel from display, but little has been done since then.

The controversy over the ownership of the statue originates in the way the object was taken; plundered from the Benin Empire in the aforementioned 1897 expedition which destroyed the kingdom.

There have been repeated repatriation calls from Nigeria and Benin, who consider the statue part of their cultural heritage. In 2017, Prince Gregory Akenzua of Benin called for repatriation during a visit to Cambridge.

This legacy was acknowledged by Jesus in their statement, saying: "There is no doubt that the statue was looted directly from the Court of Benin as part of the punitive expedition of 1897 and given to the College in 1905 by the father of a Jesus College Student".

Ore Ogunbiyi, co-author of 'Taking Up Space', a book on navigating Cambridge university as a black student and the first book to be released under Stormzy's #Merky Books imprint, previously told The Tab: 'The cockerel is more than just a symbol.

"It's a legacy. And it's telling of what an institution still stands for".

The announcement has come as a result of a recommendation from Jesus' Legacies of Slavery Working Party (LWSP), formed to run parallel to the University of Cambridge's Legacy of Slavery Inquiry.

The LWSP have also been deliberating the role of Tobias Rustat within Jesus College, a 17th-Century donor to Jesus.

A large proportion of his wealth came from investments in companies including The Royal African Company.

Rustat is still prominent within College life; a £1000 scholarship for children of clergy bears his name, whilst he is thanked for his donation at both the Commemoration of Benefactors feast and the Rustat Feast, also named after him.

A spokesperson said the College has "an obligation to remember this legacy in College today with proper contextualisation".

Jesus College's master, Sonita Alleyne, said: "The work of the LSWP has been diligent and careful.

"These decisions have not been taken to erase history. We are an honest community, and after thorough investigation into the provenance of the Benin Bronze and Rustat’s investment in the slave trade, our job is to seek the best way forward."

Featured image: Jesus College