When it was announced earlier this year that the University of Cambridge would conduct an internal investigation into how it had benefitted from the slave trade, its fair to say that reaction was mixed. While many welcomed this opportunity to explore the university’s role in this dark episode of British history, others were less enthusiastic. Instead of seeing it as a chance for much needed introspection, some saw the creation of the Advisory Group on Legacies of Enslavement as a tacit concession, an admission of responsibility for crimes for which no one alive bears any responsibility. The Times even ran a dismissive editorial unfortunately titled “slave to fashion”.
The rhetoric used on both sides of this debate immediately reminded me of an earlier one that took place during my first year at Cambridge. Back in 2016, a group of students were fervently calling for a bronze statue of a cockerel to be taken down from its position in the hall of Jesus College and repatriated to Nigeria. They not only argued for the Okukor’s removal on account of the fact that it was looted from the Kingdom of Benin by British soldiers in 1897, but also because it “celebrated a colonial narrative” that was exclusionary towards students from minority ethnic backgrounds.
As a British Nigerian studying at Cambridge, this was something I understood implicitly. That the Okukor had been so proudly displayed was a reminder of how the global North still enjoyed cultural supremacy over its former colonies just as it had once held political dominion.
Consequently, I was delighted to see the Okukor eventually removed, not least because I was wrestling with my own personal feelings of anxiety on account of how alien Cambridge’s great halls sometimes felt.
However, my excitement was muted when it transpired the Benin Bronze Okukor would remain the property of Jesus College. Although the statue was in storage and not on display, I saw the measure for what it was: a typically British compromise that saves face without shouldering anything approaching guilt.
That’s why it was so encouraging to see Jesus College announce that they were going one further. They will soon be returning the Benin Bronze cockerel to Nigeria following interim recommendations from the college’s independent Legacy of Slavery Working Party. Of course, this is great news. But I can’t help but feel this is both overdue and insufficient.
For one, the arguments the college proffered for many years still sit uncomfortably. Back in 2016, college officials refused to repatriate the statue on the grounds that the bronzes’ safekeeping could not be guaranteed in Nigeria.
At the time, Prince Akenzua, ruler of Benin wryly noted that the excuse felt like “tracking down a thief who has stolen your car, only for him to tell you that you can’t have it back because there is a risk it might get stolen again.”
Moreover, the delay in the statue’s return has lent a degree of legitimacy to the large section of the British media which seeks to deny the existence of a serious injustice entirely. A group which has effectively reduced a complex debate about Britain’s imperial legacy to a brouhaha between a group of enlightened dons and a horde of virtue-signalling snowflakes.
Given the college’s previous reluctance, it might not come as a huge surprise to learn that the decision to repatriate the Benin Bronze has been taken following a change in management. Sonita Alleyne, a Black woman, began her tenure as Master of Jesus College in October. In a statement issued by the college, she said the decision was not taken to “erase history” but came after “diligent and careful” work that looked into the wider legacy of slavery at Jesus College. “We are an honest community, and after thorough investigation into the provenance of the Benin bronze... our job is to seek the best way forward.”
As ever, determining the best course of action is difficult but what’s clear is that appointing more people of colour to leadership roles is a necessary step on the road to redemption. After all, the Benin Bronze might be returning home but the guilt of those who prevented it from doing so earlier will remain. In order to exercise it, a clean break is required.
Beyond personnel changes, the university must accelerate its efforts to support the heritage programmes of affected countries. Initially, this is a question of repatriating other culturally significant objects and artworks. Indeed, Cambridge is not the only British institution that continues to display the spoils of war and by setting an example for others such as the V&A and British museum to follow, the university can help spread justice through the heritage industry.
With that said, moving forward ultimately means acknowledging the huge extent to which these institutions benefitted and continue to benefit from violence and imperialism. Therefore, it is incumbent on Britain’s elite institutions to provide financial compensation in the form of reparations paid directly to the communities who suffered as a result.
However, Cambridge is an educational not a financial institution and therefore its most profound contribution has to come through striving to educate people about the horrors on which it built its reputation. While Cambridge University’s role in owning people is long over, its role in enlightening them is just beginning.
Alex Mistlin is a freelance journalist.