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A Cambridge University college and a Paris museum on Wednesday handed back cultural artefacts looted from West Africa during the colonial era, setting a precedent that will pressure other Western institutions to return similarly stolen works.
Jesus College, Cambridge, returned a sculpture of a cockerel taken by British troops in 1897, one of hundreds of bronzes pillaged from the once powerful Kingdom of Benin, located in what is now Nigeria. The Benin Bronzes are among Africa’s most culturally significant artefacts.
“This is the right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artefact,” said Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College ahead of a ceremony at which the cockerel was handed over to a Nigerian delegation.
After being looted, the artefact was given to Jesus College in 1905 by the father of a student. The college, whose crest features a cockerel, announced in 2019 it would return it to Nigeria.
In Paris, the Quai Branly museum handed over to the republic of Benin 26 artefacts stolen in 1892. They are among 5,000 works requested by the West African country, which borders Nigeria.
The handovers mark a milestone in the years-long fight by African countries to recover works pillaged by explorers and colonisers, at a time when numerous European institutions are grappling with the cultural legacies of colonialism.
Some 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is believed to be in Europe, French art historians estimate. Quai Branly alone holds around 70,000 African objects and London’s British Museum tens of thousands more.
The Paris ceremony was presided over by President Emmanuel Macron, who said: “All young people need to take possession of their country’s history in order to better build their future. The restitution is more than a restitution. It is an entire programme of cooperation.”
Germany has agreed to start returning Benin Bronzes held in its museums next year. Britain’s University of Aberdeen said it would return a Benin Bronze that depicts the head of an Oba (king) on Thursday. It had purchased the sculpture at an auction in 1957, it said.
“We really need this, it’s only the beginning,” said Eusebe Dossou, a Benin national visiting the Quai Branly Museum. “We want everything returned.”
Nigeria’s government thanked Jesus College for being a “trailblazer” and said it looked forward the return of other artefacts by other institutions.
The British Museum has spoken about “opportunities for sharing and displaying” items from its collection in Nigeria, but has never said it would transfer ownership.