We must first make a distinction between “cultural heritage” and the “art market”. In this blog, I am not talking about the art market. This is a multibillion dollar flourishing market in both licit and illicit trade in paintings, furniture, archaeological and ethnographic materials and other artifacts. I talk specifically about artifacts described generally as “cultural heritage” of nations and civilizations.
The vast majority of these cultural heritage expressions are in archaeological sites, many of them classified by the UNESCO as “World Heritage Sites”. One is Palmyra, the oasis in the Syrian Desert, now ravaged – including the Arch of Triumph a 2,000 years old monument – by the Islamist extremists in the ongoing civil war.
However, an even bigger number of these “cultural heritage” relics are not embedded in the soil but loose pieces that can be transported.
This blog focuses on one of these relics – the Bronze statue of Okukor (cockerel) at the University of Cambridge that has become the subject of some interest in recent weeks in the United Kingdom. Under pressure from the student body, the University has agreed to return (restitute) it to where it belongs – to Nigeria.
The “repatriation” of the Okukor is symbolic, but its importance cannot be underestimated. It is a very significant development in the cross-cultural and cross-civilizational discourse for justice in our times. The act of restitution is itself as priceless as the statue itself – neither can be measured in terms of money. These are the bonds of civilizations. They raise emotions and passions because they are part of the heritage of the roots of humanity that bestride time and place.
The story of Okukor in its own words
I am actually made of brass, not bronze. I am not quite sure about my date of birth, but it was circa 1490 – yes, centuries before you were born. That is when the Portuguese came to my place of birth – the Kingdom of Benin, now part of Nigeria. The Portuguese traded brass and copper for Benin’s pepper, cloth, ivory and… slaves. The Beninese smelted brass and copper, added some zinc to it, and made me and hundreds of my siblings to adorn the palace of the King. I learnt later that King Ogiso Igodo ruled Benin from 40 BC – to 16 AD. Of course, that was well before my birth, and before the Christian civilization.
In 1897 the British came to Benin looking for oil – palm oil. The Oba and his Council of Chiefs could not agree to the deal offered by the British; tempers flared resulting in the death of 9 British Naval officers.
In the subsequent revenge naval attack the British massacred several thousand Nigerians. They also looted the Royal Palace and removed me and several hundreds of my siblings from the palace. I was forced to become a “refugee” in England against my will. For a while, along with my friends and relatives, we were put behind bar – what humans call “museum”. We were taken to the British Museum. I don’t quite remember when and how but I was selected to be transported from there to Cambridge University to adorn the dining hall at Jesus College. From my perch I have looked at young students and staff eating and talking, but nobody ever looks at me. I don’t understand why they brought me here.
Some time ago, I was listening to the BBC from my perch, and I heard that two of my siblings were returned to Nigeria – an Ibis and a bell. Mark Walker who returned these had read in his grandfather’s diary that he was involved in the 1879 massacre in Benin and that the Ibis and the bell were his collection from of the “loot” of Benin’s cultural heritage. This touched his conscience, and he thought it was best that they go back to where they belonged. At the time of the repatriation the Oba’s brother told the press that this should “contribute positively to healing the bruise etched on the psyche of Benin people since 1897.” [i]
All these years of my confinement in the dining hall at Jesus College, I have longed to go back to my place of birth. I had heard that the government of Nigeria has been trying its best to have us repatriated to Nigeria, but the British would not agree.
Last week, thanks to the students at Cambridge, I am about to be released and repatriated to my home country. Students in the dining hall at St. Jesus were carrying a newsletter which I took pains to read from my perch. It said: “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.” [ii]
I believe they are now in contact with the Nigerian heritage and museum authorities to discuss my possible return to my homeland. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!
That was the story of the Okukor in its own words. I will now return to my own reflections.
Why the Empire cannot restitute Africa’s cultural heritage
People across the world have strong – often passionate – feelings for the restitution of the expressions and artifacts of their cultural heritage stolen during the colonial era. In the case of Africa, these feelings of hurt are compounded by the whole experience of slavery and colonial barbarity. For example, King Leopold used colonial control over the Congo to extract and export rubber at exorbitant human cost yielding huge profits for Belgium. The “red rubber” is the symbolic expression of the cutting off of fingers of rubber harvesters in the Congo when they failed to meet the targets or were guilty of some “misdemeanour”.
Restituting Africa’s heritage could partly assuage colonial guilt. Apart from this, there are also legitimate ethical grounds for restitution, as demonstrated by the example of Mark Walker’s return to Nigeria of his grandfather’s loot of the Ibis and the bell. The UNESCO encourages the return of these stolen vestiges of ancient civilisations to their proper places. It argues that this promotes inter-cultural respect and discourse.
Why, then, are the Western (mainly European) countries taking so long to do what is right and reasonable?
Could it be that the problem is systemic rather than cultural? Is it that under capitalism the worst of human frailties comes to the fore? How, then, does one explain the response of the British Prime Minister Cameron’s rejoinder to the former Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson’s suggestion that Britain owes an official apology to the Caribbean people for slavery. In his address to Parliament Cameron is reported to have told Patterson to forget the past, that slavery was a long time ago, and “as friends we can move on together to build for the future.” How insensitive can one be! [iii]
I think the problem is both systemic and cultural. Capitalism does bring out the worst because of its selfish and individualist ethic. But there is also a cultural-psychological factor – there is an element of hubris – especially among the ruling classes of Europe. It is a combination of the systemic and the cultural-psychological that leads to imperial hubris.
We must also consider the arguments put by the Europeans as to why they do not return Africa’s cultural heritage artifacts to Africa. One is that they are keeping these for their own security. Look at the destruction by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of cultural heritage sites and artifacts in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, they say. Is this argument valid? On the surface it appears so. However, further reflection will show its fallacy. The situation in the Arab world is complex blend of the past and the present, and several layers of religious, regional and ethnic contradictions. It is impossible to generalise from the present crisis in the region and argue that the artifacts should be brought to the British Museum (or any other Western museum) for their own security. Here I cannot enter into the argument about the role played by the West in the creation of ISIS and the provision of arms to it.
I think that the real reason is that Europe fears that this would create a precedent. It could become a runaway train leading to the emptying of all the treasures locked up in the European museums of England, France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries. For these countries, that would be an incalculable loss which might run into trillions of dollars or Euros, let alone the loss of tourist revenues from visitors to these museums.
A vote of thanks to the students of Oxford and Cambridge
My last blog (20 February, 2016) was on the controversy over the Statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University. The students had demanded the removal of Rhodes statue, and had marched to protest against the racial and “Eurocentric” character of education at Oxford, calling on the authorities to “decolonise” the campus and curriculum.[iv]
In my blog I had asked whether the controversy was just a storm in a teacup. The storm did subside as rapidly as it had started. However, some disturbing structural issues, I argued, remained as toxic sediments at the bottom of the cup.
The students at Cambridge failed. The statue stayed, and Chancellor of Oxford, Lord Patten, told the students who did not like Cecil Rhodes to “think about being educated elsewhere”. He argued that the institution is able to be “for the whole world” thanks to the legacy of the colonialist politician. He reminded the student of the “generosity of spirit” of Nelson Mandela when he “joined forces with the Rhodes Trust to help poor students in South Africa have access to the British politician’s funding”. [v]
Unlike Patten, I do not wish to speculate on the motives of Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in prison fighting the colonial and racist rule of Rhodes and the apartheid regime. But whatever Patten may have to say, the students’ have to be congratulated for their courage to challenge the colonial bastions of what they called “Eurocentric” knowledge. They failed in their objective in 2015 … but that was only the beginning of a long process. What has happened in early 2016 at Cambridge, quick on the heels of the Oxford events – namely the removal of the statue of Okukor – could prove to be a landmark event if the momentum is sustained.
The return of Okukor could set a precedent for the restitution of all artifacts of African cultural heritage to Africa. Why not?