King of Benin hails 'noble' Scots university over return of looted statue

The ruler of the Kingdom of Benin has hailed the “noble” move by a Scots university to return a bronze head looted by the British Army in the late 19th Century.

His Royal Majesty, Oba of Benin, Omo N'Oba N'Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II, spoke ahead of an official handover ceremony of the Benin Bronze at Aberdeen University tomorrow (Thursday).

The university became the first British institution to agree to return a Benin Bronze, one of thousands of religious and cultural artefacts looted during the 1897 British military raid on Benin in what is today Edo State in southern Nigeria.

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The bronzes are found in museums across Europe, with the university acquiring the sculpture at auction in the 1950s.

Stunning and priceless: The Benin Bronze

Ewuare II, whose younger brother will attend the ceremony in Aberdeen, said: “Much has been said about the significance of heritage art and, in spite of the occasional attempts in some quarters to downplay their cultural and religious relevance, these works are often imbued with the spirit of the people from whom they were taken.

“Regardless of the resistance in some quarters, the return of stolen art is the right thing to do. Some say that they acquired their own collections. This is like saying, well, I know this item was originally stolen but because I bought it somewhere, then I’m okay. That notion is completely wrong and unfortunate.

“In any event, we thank the University of Aberdeen for this noble act of returning our bronze work. We hope that other institutions worldwide will see the injustice when they insist on holding on to items which in fact should be a reminder to them of the great injustice that was inflicted on a people so far away and so long ago.“

The handover of the sculpture, which depicts the head of an Oba, comes as Jesus College, Cambridge, also agrees to return a Benin Bronze while the British Museum in London is coming under increasing pressure to return the looted artefacts it holds.

The looted Benin Bronze of an Oba, the ruler of the Kingdom of Benin, now in south west Nigeria, will be handed over by Aberdeen University in a ceremony on Thursday. PIC: Aberdeen University,

The sculpture’s return to Nigeria follows a review of collections, with research confirming it was one of the ‘bronzes’ acquired in immoral circumstances during the Benin Punitive Expedition when the royal palace of the Oba was burned and looted.

As a result, in 2020 the university instigated talks through Professor Bankole Sodipo, Professor of Law at Babcock University, Nigeria, to get the bronze home.

A formal request for repatriation was then proposed by the Nigerian government, with the return unanimously approved by the University Court earlier this year.

Professor Abba Isa Tijani, Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, said: “We at the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria really appreciate the initiative of the University of Aberdeen to release the Benin Bronze head in their collection."

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Prof Tijani said the university took proactive steps to return the statue, a move which he described as “unprecedented”.

He added: “The Aberdeen return should inspire all to a future of friendly returns.”

Professor George Boyne, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, said the the Benin Bronzes had become “important symbols of injustice” over the past 40 years.

He added: “It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural significance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances.”

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