Cambridge removes African statue after protest

2016-03-10 16:58
Artefact from the "Benin Bronzes" collection, a long-beaked bird returned to the Benin kingdom by a British pensioner during a ceremony in Benin City, Nigeria.  (Kelvin Ikpea, AFP)

Artefact from the "Benin Bronzes" collection, a long-beaked bird returned to the Benin kingdom by a British pensioner during a ceremony in Benin City, Nigeria. (Kelvin Ikpea, AFP)

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London - A Cambridge University college has removed a bronze statue of an African cockerel from display following a campaign by students, as part of a surge in activism against symbols of Britain's colonial past.

Jesus College said it was taking down the statue known as "Okukor" from the former kingdom of Benin - now part of southern Nigeria - and was looking at the possibility of its repatriation.

"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," a college spokesperson said.

"The college commits ... to discuss and determine the best future for the Okukor, including the question of repatriation," she said.

Last month, the college's student union passed a motion that said the statue was looted by British troops in 1897 during a "punitive expedition" as revenge for the killing of some officers.

The motion said that the statue had been bequeathed to the college from the estate of a former British officer, George Neville, who died in 1929.

The students' "Benin Bronze Appreciation Committee" said it was in contact with a Nigerian government minister who supported its repatriation, according to minutes of the meeting on the union website.

'War on the past' 

Some academics reacted critically to the ruling.

Joanna Williams, a lecturer in higher education at University of Kent was quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying that the decision was "cowardly".

"I think students have declared war on the past and this is another example of how students are using history as a morality play," she said.

Students at Oxford University launched a campaign last year for the removal of a statue of British imperialist and donor Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College.

Oriel has said it will remove a plaque honouring Rhodes, a white supremacist like many builders of the British empire, but would keep the statue in place.

The campaign has since widened to target other figures associated with British colonial history, including queen Victoria and Charles Codrington, a plantation owner in Barbados who used enslaved labour and was a major donor to All Souls College in Oxford.

A group of students held a rally and staged a die-in at Oxford on Wednesday holding up signs like "Decolonise Education" and "Morals Not Money", the Rhodes Must Fall campaign wrote on Twitter.

'Healing the bruise' 

Hundreds of works of art were looted by British soldiers from Nigeria in the 1897 punitive expedition.

Two statues from the looted "Benin Bronzes" collection were returned to Benin City two years ago by Mark Walker, a retired medical consultant whose grandfather was involved in the raid.

They were presented to the Oba (King) of Benin, Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa I at a ceremony attended by royal officials and local dignitaries.

The tale of the artefacts began when nine British officers were killed while on a trade mission to the then independent kingdom of Benin - not to be confused with modern-day Benin, which neighbours Nigeria.

The British reaction was fierce, leaving several thousand local people dead and the city set ablaze, while the oba was forced into exile.

The royal palace was looted, resulting in the removal of hundreds of artworks, including the Benin Bronzes, which showed highly decorative images of the oba and his courtiers from centuries earlier.

Most of the ornate bronzes - in fact melted down and refashioned brass from bracelets and other objects offered by Portuguese traders in the 15th century - have been at the British Museum in London ever since.

They include a 19th century depiction of the head of the oba, who has divine status for the Edo people, and 16th century plaques taken from the walls of the royal palace, showing court life.

The Oba's brother, Prince Edun Akenzua, in 2014 described Walker's actions as a gesture that would "contribute positively to healing the bruise etched on the psyche of Benin people since 1897".

Read more on:    benin  |  uk  |  culture

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