Skip to content

Opinion | Bristol’s heel-dragging over returning the stolen Benin Bronzes is a symptom of Britain’s deep-rooted denial of its colonial past

Cambridge University has led the way in the returning of stolen colonial artefacts, ceremonially handing over a Benin Bronze to Nigerian delegates.

Lois Ryan, English and Philosophy, Second Year

Cambridge University has led the way in the returning of stolen colonial artefacts, ceremonially handing over a Benin Bronze to Nigerian delegates. Such welcome news begs the uncomfortable question for Bristol, harbouring two Benin Bronzes in the Museum - why has Bristol not done the same?

The University hosted the handing over of a Berlin Bronze cockerel to delegates from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments. The ‘Okukor’ (cockerel) statue had been held in Jesus College since 1905, and was removed from display in March 2016 as a result of successful student lobbying.

The statue was originally stolen by British forces during the 1897 ‘expedition’ of Benin, which saw Britain send more than a thousand men from annexed African territory to invade the Kingdom of Benin (modern-day Nigeria).

Ten days' of fighting ended in the British-led forces massacring hundreds of local inhabitants before pillaging thousands of precious artefacts. They also burned the City of Benin to the ground and exiled King Oba Ovonramwen.

Of the thousands of Benin Bronzes stolen, over a thousand are still in Britain. Only the cockerel has been returned.

When asked on Channel 4 News in September whether the UK should return such artefacts to their countries of origin, the Secretary for Culture at the time, Oliver Dowden, advocated for a ‘Retain and explain’ approach - supporting British retention of colonial-era stolen (or, as Dowden was quick to correct, ‘acquired’) pieces.

Britain's obligation is not so much legally as morally binding

It’s difficult to believe that Dowden’s views on private property might be so at odds with the British constitution (as well as the beliefs underpinning the Tory party, and common opinion) as to genuinely support a ‘finders keepers’ type philosophy - or, in this particular case, ‘murderers-thieves-and-pillagers keepers’.

Instead, Dowden’s advocacy feels like an extension of the colonial mindset - a belief in English entitlement to that which is not ours.

This mindset is more than an impediment to the repatriation of valuable artefacts to their countries of origin. By refusing to take responsibility for, or even simply acknowledge, the atrocities committed by Britain upon the former colonies and Britain’s subsequent indebtedness, Dowden is evading the weight of responsibility.

Economically, this starts with an approximated £66 trillion in reparations which the UK is alleged to owe to India, Africa and the Caribbean.

Without apologising for such atrocities, Britain’s obligation is not as much legally binding as it is morally. The government can continue to bury its head in the sand in regards to their true debt. But this just means that the countries we owe continue to suffer the consequences and shoulder the burden of our mistakes.

Not only is Dowden’s view reminiscent of Britain’s colonial past, but it is unfortunately reflective of the neocolonial power dynamic governing the present. For instance, the disparity between having a Black History Month, and the twisted, self-justifying relationship Britain actually has with Black history, is enormous.

As Orwell write, 'He who controls the past controls the future'

Refusing to apologise for our mistakes allows us to continue skirting round the uncomfortable responsibility of confronting British history head-on. Rather, the UK government continues to look away, arguing for a ‘new story’ to be told about the slave trade in the hugely controversial report on racial inequalities published in March of this year by the Comission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

As Orwell wrote, ‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’ The rewriting of history poses a sincere threat to everyone, and the government’s desire to glorify Britain’s ugly past serves to move the UK further away from the prospect of future accountability.

Now let’s return to Bristol. Glorified as a laid-back, hippie haven; the city is known for its thriving alternative culture. Revered as ‘the France of the UK’ when it comes to protests following the toppling of the Colston statue last summer, Bristol is known for being liberal and progressive.

Considering this, alongside having a highly influential role in the slave trade, we might have expected Bristol to take the lead on issues like the repatriation of colonial artefacts - particularly given Prince Edun Akenzua of Benin’s heartfelt appeal to the museum on Channel 4 over 18 months ago.

Indeed, Bristol Museum did become the first council in the UK to agree to the return of the Benin Bronzes - and yet still they are locked away, 125 year-old prisoners, in the Museum of Bristol.

A Benin Bronze | Credit: Bristol City Council

The Museum cited uncertainty over the relocation of the Bronzes on the Nigerian end as the most recent reason for their withholding - a claim Professor Abba Tijjani, from the Nigerian delegation, handled with ease at the Jesus College Ceremony on Wednesday, as he assured international ‘Partners’ that the Bronzes would be ‘Going to the right place’ to be ‘Looked after’.

So, reassurance anewed by the Nigerian delegates on Wednesday, will Bristol Museum follow Jesus College’s lead in returning what is not and was never rightfully theirs, and in doing so take a new step towards addressing its ugly colonial past?

Or will we be forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that the slimy evasion of responsibility, so prevalent in Westminster, runs thick through Bristol’s waters too?

Featured image: Bristol City Council

Do you think these statues should be returned? Let us know on twitter: @EpigramOpinion