Image of Sonita Alleyne speaking at the UN this week
Sonita Alleyne speaking at the UN this week

Sonita Alleyne tells UN 'Africa expects return of cultural property’

The Master of Jesus College addressed the 32nd session of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGEPAD) in Geneva.

She shared her reflections on the College’s return of a Benin Bronze in October 2021, which set a global precedent, saying “the time of Africa bargaining for, begging for and buying back its stolen loot is over,” which was met with applause by delegates.

Speaking at a panel discussion on reparatory justice, she noted the tide had turned in favour of returning looted artefacts.

“As Master I am proud of the decision taken by the Fellows of Jesus College. I am proud that we pursued direct repatriation of the bronze, she said.

“In the last 18 months institutions in the UK, such as Aberdeen University and the Horniman Museum have joined with institutions in America and national leadership from France, Belgium and Germany to return single and whole collections of Benin Bronzes. This is real action.

“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.”

She said the move towards restitution was in part “because of the agency, scrutiny and determination that more diverse communities and leadership bring to institutions.”

A group of students initially raised critical questions about the ownership of the Bronze in the College's possession. The College’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party then carried out research which confirmed the statue was looted directly from the Court of Benin, as part of the punitive British expedition of 1897, and was given to the College in 1905 by the father of a student.

“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.

She told delegates research was still ongoing into the College’s historical links to slavery and colonial violence with the report on track to be published later this year.

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.

“I say the present is our country and we have the power to do things better here. By learning from the past and by taking action in the present we can create a better future for ourselves and future generations.”

Alleyne was invited to speak after members of the WGEPAD visited Jesus College in January as part of a fact-finding exercise to consider the ongoing impact of African Chattel slavery as well as explore recommendations for reparatory justice.

Contributing to another panel discussion on Education and Enterprise: Black Agency and Achievements on Wednesday 3 May, the Master 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, as well as more funding support for black entrepreneurs at every level.

The WGEPAD is a UN body of independent experts dedicated to improving the human rights situation of people of African descent. As well as undertaking country visits; the group holds two annual sessions, with the theme of this session being economic empowerment of people of African descent. At the end of the week, the Working Group will adopt conclusions and recommendations which will feed into a report presented to the 54th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2023 and to the Third Committee of the General Assembly in November 2023.