Home   News   Article

Subscribe Now

University of Cambridge to return looted Benin bronzes and artefacts taken by British forces in 1897





The University of Cambridge is to return looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

The 116 artefacts at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology are mainly made of brass but also include some ivory and wooden objects. They were taken by British armed forces during the sacking of Benin City in 1897.

An artefact looted from Benin City by British colonial forces in 1897, from the collections of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Picture: University of Cambridge/ PA
An artefact looted from Benin City by British colonial forces in 1897, from the collections of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Picture: University of Cambridge/ PA

During the attack, the British burned the city’s palace and exiled Benin’s Oba, or king, with thousands of brasses and other works – collectively known as the ‘Benin bronzes’ – taken and later sold off in London to recoup the costs of the military mission.

The artefacts, which are considered to be of exceptional artistic quality and significance, ended up in museums in the UK, Europe and US, with claims for their restitution dating back to the mid-20th century.

The university supported a formal claim from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) for the return of the items earlier this year and that has now been agreed.

A brass penannular bracelet looted from Benin City by British colonial forces in 1897 that has been in the collections of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Picture: University of Cambridge/ PA
A brass penannular bracelet looted from Benin City by British colonial forces in 1897 that has been in the collections of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Picture: University of Cambridge/ PA

A university spokesperson said: “The Charity Commission has considered and approved the return of 116 historical objects, often referred to as the Benin bronzes, from the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to the National Commission of Museums and Monuments (NCMM) of Nigeria.

“The university is now working with the commission to finalise next steps regarding these Benin bronzes, and we will communicate these in due course.

“Some artefacts will remain in Cambridge on extended loan, ensuring that this West African civilisation continues to be represented in the museum’s displays, and in teaching for school groups.

The University of Cambridge's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in Downing Street, Cambridge. Picture: PA
The University of Cambridge's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in Downing Street, Cambridge. Picture: PA

“Those that return physically will be transferred to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, as is required legally by the Republic of Nigeria, and an approach formally supported by the Oba of Benin.”

In October 2021, Jesus College, Cambridge, returned a Benin Bronze – a sculpture of a cockerel – to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments. Delegates from the commission and Benin visited the college for a ceremony to complete the handover process and celebrate the return of the bronze.

The Benin bronze that Jesus College returned in October 2021. Picture: PA
The Benin bronze that Jesus College returned in October 2021. Picture: PA

Last month, the Horniman Museum, in south London, returned looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria, while the Wellcome Collection closed its Medicine Man gallery because it “perpetuates a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”.

However, Downing Street has said there were no plans to change the law which prevents the British Museum handing the Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, back to Greece.



This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More