Home Arts Cambridge University master delivers speech at UN saying tone has changed in restitution debate

Cambridge University master delivers speech at UN saying tone has changed in restitution debate

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Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College at the University of Cambridge, UK, said in a speech earlier this week at the UN office in Geneva that “the time when Africa traded, begged and bought its spoils stolen was over”.

Alleyne addressed the 32nd session of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent yesterday (4 May); during her speech, she highlighted Jesus College’s decision to return a Benin Bronze in October 2021.

The college was the first British institution to return a Benin bronze medal to Nigeria, a bronze rooster, known as Okukor, which was given to the college by a student’s father in 1905. “As a Master, I am proud of the decision made by the Fellows of Jesus College. I am proud that we have pursued the direct repatriation of bronze,” said Alleyne.

The college first announced its decision to return the rooster to Nigeria in November 2019, following student campaigning and recommendations from a task force to investigate the college’s historical links with the slavery and colonial violence. The group concluded that “there is no doubt” that the bronze was looted directly from the royal court of Benin – a kingdom later absorbed by Nigeria – during a punitive expedition by British colonial forces in 1897.

“The tone has changed… [Africa] expects its cultural property to be returned to it,” Alleyne added in his speech. “Over the past 18 months, institutions in the UK, such as University of Aberdeen and the Horniman Museum have partnered with American institutions and national leaders from France, Belgium and Germany to return unique and entire collections of Beninese bronzes. It’s a real action.

She said the move toward restitution was in part “because of the agency, scrutiny and determination that more diverse communities and leaders bring to institutions.” A statement from the college says Alleyne told UN delegates that research was still ongoing into the college’s historical ties to slavery and colonial violence (a report will then be released later this year).

Members of the UN Task Force visited Jesus College in January to examine the current impact of African chattel slavery and explore recommendations for restorative justice. The group will adopt conclusions and recommendations that will feed into a report presented to the 54th session of the UN Human Rights Council in September.

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