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An Open Letter to the Master of Jesus College, Cambridge

Open Letter to the Master of Jesus College
Robert Tombs
Written by Robert Tombs

On 27 October, Jesus College held an elaborate ceremony to hand over a ‘Benin Bronze’ to its former owners, claiming to be the first institution in the world to do so. We have raised several questions with the Master, Ms Sonita Alleyne, OBE. So far, we have received no reply.

Dear Master of Jesus College,

Your College recently returned a brass cockerel, the ‘Okukor’, to Nigeria.  I watched with attention the video on the college’s website of the rather elaborate ceremony at which it was legally handed over.  You, and other members of your College, expressed moral satisfaction at returning the artefact, confiscated by a British expedition in 1897.  You presented this as an unambiguously moral decision, made unanimously by the Fellowship, and supported by student opinion.  There was no suggestion that it was simply a good will gesture to the people of a friendly country.  Instead, you declared that you were righting an ancient wrong—a wrong committed by Britain against Benin.

Several speeches were made, but I heard no mention of the precise circumstances in which the ‘Benin Bronzes’ were removed.  Nor was there any mention whatever of the type of society that the Kingdom of Benin was until British intervention in 1897.  There was no mention of the fact that Benin was a violent and brutal slave-raiding and slave-trading society, in which enslaved victims were regularly and horribly killed, often being buried alive as a ritual.

You ceremoniously presented a highly symbolic object, seized during a punitive raid against a slave society, to a prince, the brother of the present Oba of Benin, the descendants of those who ruled so brutally.  Slave trading by White people, such as Tobias Rustat, is for you a matter of huge significance.  Many would think this right.  But by passing over Benin’s slaving history in silence, you were effectively saying that slave-raiding, trading and killing by African rulers is a matter of no significance.  Should we conclude that Jesus College considers that Africans have different moral standards from Europeans?

If, as some argue, the involvement of Britain in slave trading and slave owning two centuries and more ago contributes to racism here today, must it not follow that the ethnic violence, social inequality and widespread corruption in Nigeria are likely to be linked to its far more recent history of slavery?  Did it not occur to you or your colleagues that it would be a desirable step for present-day Nigerian rulers, represented by the Oba of Benin, diplomats, politicians and academics, to face up to this history, and express regret for it?  Would not the handing back of the cockerel, which you and they clearly regarded as an important symbolic event, have been the perfect public occasion for both Jesus College and its Nigerian guests to acknowledge their respective historic links with slavery?

Instead of this, you concealed the true history, and reserved all blame for those who suppressed slavery in Benin, whom you and other speakers condemned as no more than violent looters.

I suggest to you that these highly publicised actions sent seriously bad messages, while an occasion for doing some good was regrettably missed.  Would you, or one of the members of your Legacies of Slavery Working Party, care to provide a public explanation of your reasoning?  This would be published on the website History Reclaimed, of which I am an editor, alongside this present letter.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Tombs

About the author

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. He holds the Palmes Académiques for services to French culture. Recent works include The English and Their History (2014), Paris, bivouac des révolutions (2014), and This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (2021).