three angles of a Benin Bronze head

Oxford University urged not to return Benin Bronzes

The University of Oxford has been urged not to “reward slavery twice” by returning the Benin Bronzes to Africa, after plans to repatriate the artefacts have ground to a halt. 

The Restitution Study Group (RSG), a legal team campaigning for slavery reparations for US descendants of enslaved people, have asked the University to use delays in plans for repatriation as a chance to scrap the proposal altogether. Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, founder of the RSG, described the plans as “morally indefensible” and asked that the University “immediately suspend [their] plans”, adding that the proposal was “against the express wishes of those of us in the UK, the US, and the Commonwealth whose ancestors literally gave their lives so the Bronzes could be created.”

Lawyers from the group argued that to hand the Bronzes back would reward the kingdom of Benin for its historical involvement with slavery by returning the profits it had garnered through the practice. They maintain that the kingdom of Benin traded in slaves, and used the profits from this to produce the Bronzes, so the artefacts should remain in British museums for educational purposes.

The plans form part of a pledge made in July 2022 by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge to return the artefacts held by their museums, a move which would constitute a total of 213 Bronzes being returned. This move required approval from the Charity Commission, which was to debate the “moral” case for handing back the statues and whether it would have a detrimental effect on the university charities. 

Cambridge’s plan was approved in December, but a similar plan from Oxford to return the Bronzes currently held in the Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean Museum collections has been delayed, pending a resubmission from the University about its justifications for repatriation of the objects. 

Previously, RSG brought a lawsuit against the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. to prevent the return of 29 further Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. They argued that a return of the statues would prevent US descendants of enslaved people from being able to experience their heritage. However, the order was eventually denied, with the court documents stating that “The Smithsonian does not appear to have acted beyond its statutory authority by reaching an agreement with Nigeria to transfer some of the Benin bronzes.”

Image credit: Pitt Rivers Museum

Image description: three angles of a bronze head statue, part of the Benin Bronzes collection