A college at Cambridge University and a Paris museum are restoring cultural objects looted in West Africa during colonial times, setting a precedent that will push other institutions to return stolen works.
Jesus College, Cambridge, will render a sculpture of a rooster taken by British troops in 1897, one of hundreds of Benin bronzes that were looted in the powerful kingdom of Benin, located in present-day Nigeria.
They are among the most culturally significant artefacts in Africa.
“This is the right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artefact,” Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College, said before a rooster ceremony for a Nigerian delegation.
After being looted, the rooster was donated to Jesus College in 1905 by the father of a student. The college announced in 2019 that it would be returning it to Nigeria.
The handover marks an important step in the struggle for years by African countries to recover the works looted by Western explorers and colonizers, at a time when many European institutions grapple with the cultural legacy of colonialism.
According to estimates by French art historians, 90% of African cultural heritage is found in Europe. The Quai Branly museum in Paris alone holds some 70,000 African objects; The British Museum in London has tens of thousands more.
Germany has agreed to start returning Benin bronzes held in its museums next year. French President Emmanuel Macron told Burkinabé students in 2017 that “African heritage cannot be found only in private collections and European museums”.
During a ceremony chaired by Macron, the Quai Branly museum will hand over to the Republic of Benin 26 objects stolen from the Kingdom of Abomey in 1892. They are among the 5,000 works requested by the West African country.
“We really need it, it’s only the beginning,” said Eusèbe Dossou, a Beninese visiting the Quai Branly museum. “We want everything to be returned. “
The Nigerian government thanked Jesus College for being a “pioneer” and said it looked forward to the return of other artifacts by other institutions.
The British Museum spoke of “opportunities to share and display” items from its collection in Nigeria, but never said it would transfer ownership.