The University of Aberdeen has promised to return a Benin Bronze to Nigeria within weeks, the first institution to do so more than a century after Britain looted the sculptures and auctioned them to Western museums and collectors.
The university said on Thursday that the sculpture had left Nigeria in an “extremely immoral” manner, leading it to reach out to appropriate authorities in 2019 to negotiate its return.
The bronze, which depicts the Oba of Benin, was part of a haul of thousands of religious and cultural treasures were taken when British forces looted Nigeria in 1897, and will be sent back “within weeks.”
The university, which has had the bronze since 1957, said in a statement that the “punitive expedition” of 1897 was one of “the most notorious examples of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with 19th-century European colonial expansion.”
“Thousands of metal and ivory sculptures and carvings were looted by British forces in 1897 during the destruction of Benin City in present-day Nigeria by a British military expedition,” the university said.
It added that many of the soldiers and administrators involved sold Benin objects to museums or private collectors. Others were later given as gifts to museums or sold at auction or by art dealers.
“Over the last 40 years, there have been growing calls for the return of such items, which have become symbols of injustice,” the university said.
George Boyne, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the university, said the decision was in line with Aberdeen’s “values as an international, inclusive university,” adding that keeping the bronze would have been wrong.
“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances. We, therefore, decided that an unconditional return is the most appropriate action we can take, and are grateful for the close collaboration with our partners in Nigeria,” he said.
The Nigerian government has welcomed the university’s gesture, saying the reaching out by the University of Aberdeen and “eventual release” of the “priceless antiquity” are a step in the right direction.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said other holders of Nigerian antiquity ought to emulate this to bring fairness to the burning issue of repatriation.
The Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Mr. Abba Tijani, according to Premium Times, noted that “the world looks forward to further release of other purloined Nigerian antiquities to the Nigerian nation. Not just Benin bronzes, but the Ife, Nok, Esie, Owo and other Nigerian ancient arts. We welcome collaborations and agreements of all sorts. We love the fact that others cherish these great art-works. International travelling exhibitions of these art-works are part of what we offer the world.”