A Scottish university will return a sculpture of a king up to a few centuries old to Nigeria, back home after it was looted by British soldiers over 120 years ago, the university announced Thursday.
The bronze sculpture of an oba (king) of Benin – an example of Late Benin Period art – was among “thousands of metal and ivory sculptures and carvings” looted in 1897 during the destruction of Benin City, the old name of Nigeria, by British colonialists, said the University of Aberdeen.
“An ongoing review of the collections identified the Head of an Oba as having been acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral, so we took a proactive approach to identify the appropriate people to discuss what to do,” Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections, was quoted as saying in the university statement.
“The expansion of British trade and colonial control in the later 19th century brought it into conflict with the kingdom of Benin, ultimately leading, in 1897, to the city being attacked and destroyed by a British military expedition, the ‘Benin Punitive Expedition,’ with many inhabitants killed. The royal palace was burned and looted, and the Oba, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, exiled,” the university explained.
On Tuesday the university’s governing body agreed on the “unconditional return” of the Benin bronze to its owner country, Nigeria.
“I welcome the decision of the University of Aberdeen Court to support the return of the Benin bronze. This is in line with our values as an international, inclusive university and our foundational purpose of being open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of otherism,” George Boyne, Aberdeen’s principal and vice-chancellor, was quoted as saying.
West African art and repatriation
The decision came over conversations held with Nigerian figures supported by Nigerian federal governments. The conversations reflected growing calls over the last 40 years for the return of such valuable looted items, “which have become symbols of injustice,” said the university.
The statement explained that many of the British 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.”
“Benin City was the centre of a powerful and long-lasting kingdom in West Africa of the Edo people, renowned for its tradition of high-quality metalworking from at least the 17th century,” the university said.
The move reflected growing calls for the return of historical objects and treasures to their country of origin from which they were looted.
Turkey, a country rich in history victimized by such looting, has supported such art repatriation calls for itself and other nations.