Pressure is mounting on Jesus College to repatriate a bronze Benin cockerel named ‘Okukor’ following the intervention of the great-grandson of the Benin monarch from whom it was stolen. The Okukor, a bronze statue of a cockerel, has resided in Jesus College since the 1930s, but was “permanently removed” from its dining hall in March of this year following a vote of the Jesus College Student Union (JCSU) to repatriate the statue.
However, the Okukor has yet to leave Jesus, the college so far only promising to work with museum authorities “to discuss and determine the best future for the Okukor, including the question of repatriation.”
The artifact was among the 3,000 ‘Benin Bronzes’ looted during the destruction of Benin City in 1897. The items were taken as spoils to pay for a naval expedition raised to avenge the deaths of nine officers killed during a trade dispute between the Benin Monarch – Oba Ovonramwen – and Britain.
In a brutal act of imperialism, field commanders of the expedition were instructed to burn down the kingdom’s towns and the Oba was deposed. The 500-strong British ‘punishment’ squad massacred locals with Maxim machine guns and burned down the palace.
Prince Akenzua, the great-grandson of Oba Ovonramwen, told The Daily Telegraph that it was “about time these statues came home to their original owners”. Akenzua, who is now 82, has been a leader in the Nigerian quest to return the treasures, giving testimony to the House of Commons and lobbying the British Museum.
At a meeting of the JCSU in February, the Benin Bronze Appreciation Committee succeeded in passing an amended motion, which supported the returning of the Okukor. The 11-page draft proposal was initially criticised for its language, which referenced “reaping the benefits” of repatriation. Some students felt that this reinforced a “neocolonial narrative”. Ultimately, an amended motion was passed in favour of repatriation and the Okukor was put into storage, where its future remains uncertain.