Cambridge University to return Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

The Charity Commission has granted consent for the University of Cambridge to return 116 artefacts to Nigeria.

The objects, known as the Benin Bronzes, were taken by British armed forces during the sacking of Benin City in 1897, the university said.

The legal ownership of the items will be transferred to the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

The Charity Commission concluded the university was “under a moral obligation” to return the artefacts.

A spokesperson for the university said it was “working with the commission to finalise next steps regarding these Benin Bronzes”.

Small carved wooden male figure, listed as originating from the ‘Benin West Africa Expedition 1897’.

The university said the 1897 attack was “mounted by Britain in response to a violent trade dispute”.

“British forces burned the city’s palace and exiled Benin’s Oba, or king,” the university said.

“Several thousand brasses and other artefacts – collectively known as the ‘Benin Bronzes’ – were taken by the British, and subsequently sold off in London to recoup the costs of the military mission.”

The artefacts ended up dispersed across many museums in the UK, the rest of Europe, and the US.

The university said 116 of the items were at its Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Prof Nicholas Thomas, director of the museum, said: “Across the international museum sector, there is growing recognition that illegitimately acquired artefacts should be returned to their countries of origin.”

A brass penannular bracelet decorated with heavy slanting bands

The university said it hosted the Benin Dialogue Group in 2017 and had visited Benin City before receiving a formal claim from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria in January 2022.

The university supported the claim for the items to be returned to the west African country and submitted the case to the Charity Commission for authorisation in July.

The commission has granted consent for the transfer.

A spokesman for the commission said it “carefully” assessed the matter.

“The trustees made the decision to transfer the artefacts, concluding that they were under a moral obligation to take this step,” he said.

A spokesperson for the university said some of the artefacts would remain in Cambridge on “extended loan, ensuring that this West African civilisation continues to be represented in the museum’s displays, and in teaching for school groups”.

“Those that return physically will be transferred to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, as is required legally by the Republic of Nigeria – an approach formally supported by the Oba of Benin.”