Controversial Cockerel Statue is Cambridge's 'Cecil Rhodes'

Jesus College
The gateway leading into Jesus College, Cambridge pictured circa 1955. The college, which was founded in 1496, has recently found itself the focus of a student protest. Leonard G. Alsford / Stringer

Updated | Jesus College in Cambridge removed a bronze cockerel statue from its main hall on Tuesday, and will consider repatriating it to West Africa in the aftermath of widespread student protests. In 1930, Captain George William Neville, a former British Army officer bequeathed the Benin bronze, known as an "Okukor", to the college.  After a punitive British naval expedition in 1897, the cockerel was among thousands of artworks stolen from the Benin empire, located in what is now southern Nigeria.

Last month, Jesus College students submitted an 11-page document entitled “Proposal to Repatriate Benin Bronze’ during a meeting on the status of the sculpture. Ore Ogunbiyi told the meeting: “We spoke to a bronze repatriation expert who said that grown men cried after the return of pieces in 2014.”

The Jesus College Students’ Union voted in favor of the motion to send back the statue “to its place of origin,” a royal palace in Nigeria, arguing that the looted sculpture represented Britain’s colonial past. However, the Okukor has symbolic significance; the College coat of arms features three black cockerels.

“There is of course a strong moral case for the return of this material—all of it—but to be honest there is currently nowhere safe to put it in Nigeria,” John Picton, professor of Archeology at SOAS, tells Newsweek. “The existing facilities could not cope if all the artifacts from museums in LA, Chicago, New York, London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and so on were to arrive.”

“In any case, it is only right that world-class museums of world art history and archaeology should include some of this material; so there is a place for compromise. The trouble is no-one really wants to do anything about it; and if a group of students make a fuss and this brass bird is wrapped up and sent back, so what? The problem is much more complex.”

On Tuesday, the College issued an official statement:

“Jesus College acknowledges the contribution made by students in raising the important but complex question of the rightful location of its Benin bronze, in response to which it has permanently removed the Okukor from its hall. The college commits to work actively with the wider university and to commit resources to new initiatives with Nigerian heritage and museum authorities to discuss and determine the best future for the Okukor, including the question of repatriation.”

The campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the 19th-century colonialist, from Oriel College in Oxford in January failed to achieve its objective, and it remains in place.

According to The Daily Telegraph, Nigerian officials have already made plans to come to Britain to collect the Cambridge cockerel.

This story has been updated to include comments from archeology professor John Picton.