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Jesus Master Sonita Alleyne OBE tells UN ‘Africa expects return of cultural property’

‘The time of Africa bargaining for, begging for and buying back its stolen loot is over’


Sonita Alleyne was invited to speak to the UN following a visit from the UN’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGEPAD) to Jesus College last January. The original visit was part of a UK-wide fact-finding mission, critically examining the situation of people of African descent in the UK. This fact-finding explored the ongoing impact of African Chattel slavery as well as also exploring recommendations for reparatory justice.

At the UN, Alleyne reflected on the college’s return of a Benin Bronze in October 2021. This set a global precedent, as it was the first institution to do so. She stated, that “the time of Africa bargaining for, begging for and buying back its stolen loot is over,” which was met with applause by delegates. Alleyne added that as Master, she was “proud of the decision taken by the Fellows of Jesus College. I am proud that we pursued direct repatriation of the bronze.”

She highlighted the changing tides with reference to the return of looted artefacts: “The tone has shifted and the implication is that the time of Africa bargaining for, begging for and buying back its stolen loot is over. It expects its cultural property to be returned.”

Members of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, with Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, fourth from left. (Image credits: Jesus College, Cambridge)

She also expressed hope in light of many further institutions returning stolen bronzes, including Aberdeen University, the Horniman Museum together with American institutions and national leadership from France. Alleyne emphasised this was “real action.”

The College’s possession of the now returned Bronze was originally called into question by a group of students and this was followed by research from the College’s legacy of slavery party. This research confirmed that the statue had been looted directly from the court of Benin, as part of the punitive British expedition of 1867. The statue had been given to the College by the parent of a student in 1905.

“This process of open, honest and rigorous historical research, followed by a proper discussion of the issues, is a model that many organisations are now following,” Alleyne said.

The College is also on track to release a report this year on the College’s historical links to slavery and colonial violence. Alleyne stated “this process of open, honest and rigorous historical research, followed by a proper discussion of the issues, is a model that many organisations are now following.”

She concluded: “It has been written that ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’ That quotation can be used to avoid interrogating history properly and failing to solve urgent contemporary problems whose roots may be centuries old.”

Alleyne also contributed to a different panel called Education and Enterprise: Black Agency and Achievements. Speaking on the panel on Wednesday 3 May, she called for more support for children at the earliest opportunity beginning in pre-school and continuing through school to higher education and into the workplace. She also called for more funding support for black entrepreneurs at every level.