By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON – A Scottish university will on Thursday hand over to a Nigerian delegation a Benin Bronze that was among thousands looted by British troops in 1897, the third European institution in two days to return cultural artefacts to their African homelands.
The sculpture represents the head of an Oba, or king, of the once mighty Kingdom of Benin, located in what is now Nigeria. The bronzes stolen from its royal court are among Africa’s most significant heritage objects and are mostly in Europe.
The University of Aberdeen acquired the bronze head at an auction in 1957. Following a recent review of its provenance, which confirmed it was one of the looted items, the university contacted the Nigerian authorities to offer to hand it over.
“Over the last 40 years, the Benin Bronzes have become important symbols of injustice,” said Professor George Boyne, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the university, in a statement ahead of a handover ceremony.
“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural significance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances.”
The present Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, said the bronzes were “imbued with the spirit of the people from whom they were taken”, adding that he hoped the Scottish university’s “noble act” would inspire other institutions to follow suit.
On Wednesday, a Cambridge University college returned to Nigeria another Benin Bronze, while in Paris, the Quai Branly museum handed over 26 artefacts stolen in 1892 to the republic of Benin, a former French colony that borders Nigeria.
The handovers are the clearest sign yet of growing momentum towards the return of artefacts taken away from Africa by Europeans during the colonial period. Germany has agreed to start returning Benin Bronzes held in its museums next year.
The returns are likely to increase pressure on the British Museum in London, which holds by far the largest and most significant collection of Benin Bronzes.