The famed bronze cockerel which was stolen by the British imperial team in the former Kingdom of Benin (which became part of colonial Nigeria) was handed over to the Nigerian representatives by the Cambridge University officials. The Jesus College, a college at the Cambridge University has been holding this highly esteemed artifact of cultural and religious significance for a period spurning over a century.
The return was facilitated by a protracted effort calling for its return to Nigeria by the student union at the College following a series of protests since 2016. The return of the bronze cockerel is just another example of the lukewarm undertaking that the former colonial masters across Europe have made towards ensuring the return of a stolen Africa to its people. Colonialism in Africa was characterised by cultural dilution by way of uncouth means such as forced marriages between the whites and the indigenous people, pillage of essential artifacts that bore religious weight and the promotion of ethnic wars through the divide and rule concept.
In estimate, 80-90 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural wealth is currently held externally due to plunder, conquests and colonial trading whereby the stolen loot was sold at a giveaway price in various European auctions . The artifacts would then undergo a stint of shifts in location owing to high demand from fellow European museums in the European Union. In the foreign museums, the artifacts would serve a purpose distinct to their actual purpose in their lands of origination. In some enraging instances, art carrying religious weight serves as mere instruments of tourist attraction. The okukur is an example of such African artifact.
Why and how was the okukur stolen?
The set of conditions surrounding the theft of the oukukur bear colonial sentiments. The plunder that included the theft of thousands of other artifacts took place in the 19th century as a response to what has been dubbed as the Benin massacre. History has it that, the successful retaliation by the Obu of Benin to a military invasion under Acting Consul General James Phillips. News of the impending imperial invasion reached the king’s court and preparations to repel the intruders were successfully made.
This unanticipated repulsion of the Phillips’ team led to the massacre of the imperialist troops much to the vexation of Sir Harry Rawson who decided to unleash a punitive expedition of troops. The expedition which became the Berlin Expedition of 1897 saw the implementation of the scorched earth warfare, leading to starvation, displacement and the eventual sacking of the Kingdom of Benin. To cover the cost of the expedition and to appease those who had participated in the expedition, the Rear Admiral, Harry Rawson facilitated the auctioning and the gifting of a vast of precious loot comprising cultural heritage, the bronze cockerel included. The okukur later found its way to the Jesus College when a student’s father donated it to the Cambridge University in 1905.
The call for the returning of African heritage- neocolonial imprints
Colonialism did not spare the core cultural wealth of sub-Saharan states. The continued hold on African heritage constitutes human rights violation in particular freedoms of expression, religion and consciousness. Most European countries have been reluctant to return African heritage to Africa. Surprisingly, most of the looted goods that the former colonial leaders keep on holding to ransom are those that carry huge cultural and religious weight. It took over two decades for Germany to return the Zimbabwe hungwe soapstone bird which is a sacred religious symbol and identity of the Great Zimbabwe. The indigenous people of the Munhumutapa State in Zimbabwe are believed to have held the hungwe bird with esteem as messengers of God. In that way, these soapstone birds were not just art, but sacred religious artifacts of prime spiritual benefit.
Similarly, the bronze cockerel bears the cultural impetus of the position of the Queen in the socio-cultural heritage of Benin. They are more than just molded bronze, but an artistic depiction of the true essence of the West African culture. No colonial power can safely claim ownership of these cultural stocks as these stocks are not theirs. They resemble nothing of the European culture except for the purposes of clinging on to the colonial history and its superiority complexes. In all honesty, when the African heritage is kept far away from home, it is nothing short of a conquest trophy. Upon the reception of the soapstone bird that had been transferred to Germany by Britain, the late ex-President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe bemoaned the trauma that these sacred artifacts undergo in foreign lands far away from home. He opined that, “a very eventful if not troubled existence during its almost 100 years in exile”.
What does the return of the okukur imply to Africans?
The concerted effort by African States to coerce former colonial powers to return the African heritage to the African people is a noble cause. Cultural artworks cut across issues of identity, nationalism and patriotism. Art bearing cultural relevance is necessary for connecting the past with the present. It takes one to understand the past in order to comprehend the present and possibly to foretell the future. This is most likely because history has a thing with repeating itself. What used to be colonialism characterised by the use of force or compulsion has been substituted by a wave of diplomatic colonization of African States.
This is the so called neo-colonialism where the former colonial masters and emerging powers have regrouped and resorted to cultural dilution, conditional foreign aid, globalization and economic imperialism as means to re-colonise African States. The return of the bronze cockerel should therefore serve as a motivation to sub-Saharan states to press and reclaim what was stolen from their forefathers and to cherish their heritage as does the former colonial masters. Thus the, African Union, formerly the Organisation of African Unity has a mandate to activate its Reparations Committee as part of efforts for the restoration of the African heritage initiative.