A FAMOUS GROUSE
THE decision this week by the University of Cambridge’s Jesus College to return a statue of a cockerel looted during an 1897 punitive expedition in what is now Nigeria is another noteworthy development in the ongoing struggle in these parts to stir up some forelock-tugging among our former masters.
It may seem chickenfeed to some but, here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), there was a suggestion that some good may yet come of this gesture now that students and staff will no longer be bothered by this relic from an unsavoury episode in their history.
As it is, the statue, one of the fabled Benin Bronzes, was removed from display in March 2016 following the unsuccessful campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oxford’s Oriel College.
For decades, the fowl occupied pride of place in the Jesus College dining hall. There it had glared down at those who had passed before it, perhaps reminding them of little other than Sunday roasts and similar repasts.
In more recent years, though, it began to peck away at the Cambridge conscience, and there followed angry demonstrations against the statue with protesters labelling it a spoil of war that celebrated a “colonial narrative”. The rooster had to fall, and so it did. Cambridge one, Oxford nil.
Once down, though, university dons had to decide what to do with it.
Hard debate followed over whether to repatriate the piece to its native Nigeria. There was reportedly some concern that if the college gave back the chicken, it would not only have been accused of pandering to political correctness, but it would also set a precedent for demands for the return other Benin Bronzes, many of which are in the British Museum.
It is understandable the British would want to hang on to these pieces; they are magnificent — so much so that it was initially thought unlikely that people “supposedly so primitive and savage”, according to the anthropologist Eva Meyerowitz, could have made such intricate, highly developed objects and that these craftsmen must have been taught metallurgy by Portuguese traders.
In fact, the Benin Empire was a hub of African civilisation long before contact with the Europeans, and the bronzes were made by an indigenous culture. Many date to the 13th century, and others to the 15th and 16th centuries.
By the 1890s, this civilisation was still flourishing. At its heart was the vast sprawling palace in Benin. It was here that the Edo monarch, Ovonramwen, held court with generals, chiefs, priests, artists and foreign emissaries along with their retainers and attendants.
The kingdom enjoyed a degree of autonomy that was however resented by British trading companies who’d wanted access to the region’s palm oil, rubber and other natural resources. They duly pressured the government to do something about it in the interests of commerce and civilisation.
In 1892 British consuls presented Ovonramwen with a document which ceded sovereignty to Britain and guaranteed free trade. The king signed it with an “X” — and then duly continued to rule as if nothing had changed. The British were outraged at such cheek, but Ovonramwen insisted he had no idea what the document meant. Neither he nor anyone in his court could speak English. Thus perhaps Nigeria’s first 419 letter scam.
What followed has rather weaselly been referred to as an “occupation” but was in effect the total destruction of the Edo kingdom.
The British sent a diplomatic mission along with some soldiers to remonstrate with the king. When they tried to enter the city uninvited they were practically wiped out by palace guards. The British responded in 1897 by sending in 1 500 troops on a “punishment raid” and burnt Benin city to the ground after looting some 3 000 artworks from the palace.
“Benin,” the international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson writes in a new book, Who Owns History?: Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure (Biteback Publishing), “was henceforth open for British business, and the booty was brought back in convoys and by soldiers in their knapsacks. The Foreign Office decided it should be sold ‘to defray the cost of the expedition’.”
The British Museum kept about 700 pieces, while the rest eventually ended up in other museums and private collections around the world. One of the officers on that punitive expedition, Captain George William Neville, handed over the cockerel sculpture to Jesus College in 1905. His son had been a student there.
In his book, the bulk of which deals with the theft of the Parthenon Marbles, Robertson argues that the rooster wasn’t Neville’s to dispense with in the first place. He writes:
“There have been suggestions that although the ‘spoils of war’ doctrine does not exist in wars between ‘civilised’ (ie, European) nations, it applied nonetheless to colonial conquests of ‘uncivilised’ or un-Christian tribes or kingdoms. Britain tried to excuse its brutal behaviour by claiming it found evidence of human sacrifice. Even if true, this was not a motive: the purpose of preparing the invasion was profit, and the occasion for its timing was revenge. It was a barbaric action in which uncounted (because nobody bothered to count) civilians were killed by bayonet and musket-shot, all the valuable cultural property was stolen and thereafter the palace, temples and houses were burned to the ground. The Benin Bronzes were taken by force in an act of military aggression and should therefore be returned.”
And they will be returned. Sort of.
The British Museum has agreed to loan some of the Bronzes to Nigeria when it opens its new Royal Museum at Benin City in 2021. This, according to activists, is an egregious example of getting the victims of colonialism to deal with the baggage of their colonisers.
“Baggage” is a good word for it. Very little of the booty swiped in the civilising enterprise ever goes on display in the museums of the north. The bulk of it moulders in basements and storerooms. Occasionally academics and curators from Africa and elsewhere in the developing world are invited on expeditions to “mine the museum” and forage about in dusty boxes for artefacts for their own shows.
One argument offered by the great museums of Europe in favour of hanging on to these treasures is that they’re in a position to look after them, and thus preserve them for posterity for all the world to enjoy. This is hugely insulting, according to those whose cultural heritage lies in these museums. As one activist put it, “Having stolen it from us in the first place, are you saying we’re now unable to look after it?”
Happily, in South African’s case, all of this is moot, and perhaps not even academic. As our museum curators are well aware, our cultural history only began in 1994. Everything before that was either apartheid-related or colonial or Western or racist or just plain illegitimate. That at least is the official position. And so we needn’t concern ourselves when Pierneef paintings and other valuable pieces disappear from government buildings.
Besides, our past is now comfortably curated by Dali Tambo and his National Heritage Project Company.
Over the festive season, visitors to Cape Town, once again labelled the world’s most desired tourist destination or some such, will be able to thrill to Long March to Freedom, the vast tableau of kitsch that Tambo has assembled at Century City.
Here are a hundred bronze statues of the heroes of our liberation. All painted in lifelike colours. Hyperrealism on the hoof.
They are, Tambo is quoted as saying, “a beautiful way to connect with the people involved with the struggle and depict the country’s brightest, best and bravest individuals”.
Rubbish. At R75 a ticket for adults, there is nothing beautiful about this nonsense at all. It’s only a matter of time before Capetonians raze this debacle now that they’re done with their trains.