A Cambridge University college said on Thursday it would return an antique statue of a cockerel to Benin City in Nigeria, more than 120 years after it was looted by British colonial forces.
The move by Jesus College will likely step up pressure on other institutions holding plunder from the historic Kingdom of Benin and other objects from other cultures taken by colonialists during the 19th century.
Nigeria said it was delighted by the announcement and launched a broad appeal for museums across the world to return its heritage.
“Considering the hundreds of Benin Bronzes looted during that occupation, the decision to return the cockerel is like a drop in the ocean, but it is an important drop and we welcome it,” the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said.
Jesus College staff said research had shown there was no doubt the cockerel had been looted from the Court of Benin, the seat of the once-mighty West African kingdom.
“This royal ancestral heirloom belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin,” the college said on its website, referring to the traditional and still influential ruler of what is now part of modern-day Nigeria.
British museums have long resisted campaigns for the return of Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes, Greece’s Elgin Marbles, Ethiopia’s Magdala treasures and other loot, often citing legislation that bans them from disposing of their collections.
But the debate has heated up in recent years, particularly in Britain’s universities, where students and campaigners have called for greater recognition of how the colleges benefited from colonial-era riches and funding.
Jesus College said on Thursday that from now on it would “acknowledge and contextualize” the role in its history of Tobias Rustat, a major 17th century benefactor who benefited from the transatlantic slave trade.
Rustat, an investor in the Royal African Company which was one of the major slave-trading institutions, is buried in the college chapel. A portrait of him hangs in the postgraduate common room, and scholarships in his name are still awarded to some students.
Dan Hicks, a professor of archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, said Britain had reached a tipping point in the national dialogue about the restitution of looted objects.
“In the past, our attention on this matter was focused on national collections like the British Museum,” he told the Guardian newspaper. “But in reality such loot is held in dozens of institutions across the regions: city museums, art galleries and the collections of universities.”
The statue of the cockerel was given to Jesus College in 1905 by the father of a student and was on display in the dining hall until 2016, when it was put into storage following student protests over its provenance.
The British Museum, which has around 100 objects from Benin on display, announced last year that it would loan some of them to a new Benin Royal Museum in Benin City that is due to open in 2023.
Along with representatives from Nigeria and from museums in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, the British Museum is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, which is working on the creation of the new Nigerian museum.
The idea is that the European museums would contribute objects from their collections, on a rotating basis, to the Benin City museum’s displays. The British Museum has agreed a three-year loan that could potentially be extended.
“The loan is being developed in close dialogue with the Benin Royal Court and the Benin Royal Museum project team, although no final decisions have yet been made concerning specific objects,” the British Museum said on Wednesday.