This article is over 7 months old
University to return historic statue of King Shehu to Nigerian museum in major step towards reconciliation of ‘Africa’s Liege’
Cambridge University to return Benin bronze to Nigeria in historic moment
Cambridge University has followed the example of London’s National Gallery and backtracked on a decision to sell a bronze statue by the renowned Benin artist.
The university’s governing body agreed that it should return the 2,000-year-old bronze to Nigeria.
The Benin bronzes: how ‘Uncle Ben’ survived slavery and settled in Africa Read more
The Benin bronzes are considered a key part of African art. Their removal to Britain was described by experts as the “Africa’s Liege”, a reference to the once troublesome City of Liege in the Belgian Congo.
The statue of King Shehu II – known in the Benin Empire as Uncle Ben – had been sold in 1936 to an anonymous buyer to fund the building of a new college house in Oxford, to become a part of the Serpentine Gallery’s survey of Victorian African art in 1993.
The Benin bronzes were sent to the London gallery, the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the National Gallery. The Shehu bronze was sold to an anonymous buyer in 1936 after being the property of the University of Nigeria, Kaduna.
Shehu II was one of the greatest influences on Benin art and the story of his real name is a historical one. His name derives from his warrior status as a warrior king in the Benin Empire. The name most commonly used is Shehu, or protector of the king.
The ruling body at Cambridge passed a resolution saying that their scholars and trustees agreed that the bronze should be returned to Nigeria, and the monarch known as Uncle Ben to be returned to the estate of Queen Elizabeth I.
It added that several steps would be required before the statue could be returned, including authentication by the Benin museum and confirmation from the university that its current status and maintenance would be under appropriate control.
“The withdrawal of the sale of the statue of Shehu II has been undertaken in the interests of scholarship, the coherence of the University’s medieval European collection and reconciliation between Britain and Nigeria,” a statement by the governing body said.
The decision has been applauded by the Nigerian government.
“The Cabinet meeting in which I presented the decision to my colleagues also unanimously supported it,” said the vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo.
The Benin royal family welcomed the news. “This is a historical development that will not only benefit the kingdom of Benin but will further build up the ties that have existed in Nigeria for centuries with Europe and the Commonwealth,” said Prince Akabatse, the royal minister of culture.
The other Benin bronzes – the Kalu palm-wine-seller and the quartered drum – have been in Britain since 1990.
All three were purchased by the Nnamdi Azikiwe Foundation, the charity for the Nnamdi Azikiwe Research and Scholarship Project. In 2010, however, university authorities turned down a plan to sell the artefacts to a Nigerian museum.
Last May, the National Gallery announced that it was sending the Kalu palm-wine-seller back to Benin in west Africa after nearly 70 years. The national museum in Germany declined to hold it because it could not guarantee security.