A Cambridge college which became the first institution in the world to return a looted Benin bronze to Nigeria, is to appear before an ecclesiastical court early next year over its attempt to remove a memorial in the college chapel to one of its most significant benefactors because of his links to the slave trade.
Jesus College is seeking to relocate a memorial to Tobias Rustat (1608-1694), an investor with the Royal African Company, which according to one historian shipped more enslaved African women, men and children than any other single institution during the transatlantic slave trade.
After the “joy” of the handover of the Benin bronze cockerel to a Nigerian delegation last month, Sonita Alleyne, master of Jesus College, conceded that progress on the Rustat memorial would be more difficult, with opposition from about 70 alumni who are against plans to remove the memorial from the chapel and install it in a permanent educational exhibition space elsewhere in the college.
The memorial was created by the studio of the Anglo-Dutch sculptor Grinling Gibbons and has been described as one of the most important pieces of funerary art in the country. Lawyers have been hired on each side and the case will be heard in the consistory court of the Diocese of Ely in a hearing expected to last two to three days.
Both the Benin bronze and the Rustat memorial at Jesus College were examined by a legacy of slavery working party (LSWP), made up of academics, students and the college archivist, which was set up as part of a process of “critical self-reflection on the long-term legacies of slavery and colonial violence”.
Alleyne, a businesswoman and entrepreneur, became the first female master at Jesus and the first black leader of an Oxbridge college when she took up her role in 2019, a few months after the working party was set up. “The decision on the Benin bronze was straightforward,” she said. “We knew the problems with it, it was looted from Benin. It was an unanimous decision that we should give it back.”
As a result, on 27 October a delegation from Benin City and Nigeria came to Cambridge to retrieve the bronze – one of thousands looted by British forces in 1897 from the kingdom of Benin, later absorbed into Nigeria – in an emotional ceremony witnessed around the world.
“We did not set out to be the first institution in the world to do this,” Alleyne told the Guardian. “That was not our goal. It was just right. The day that it happened, it was quite emotional for the contingent who came. There was real joy.”
Aberdeen University followed suit and returned its bronze, the Smithsonian Institution in the US has taken down its items from show and is planning to return them, and Alleyne is optimistic that other institutions will follow suit, including Cambridge’s own Musuem of Archeology and Anthropology.
All eyes are however on the British Museum, which has the largest collection in the world, with 900 bronzes. A spokesperson said the museum was part of the Benin dialogue group and was involved in talks over the construction of the Edo Museum of West African Art, which will reunite Benin artworks from international collections.
On Rustat, Alleyne said it was not about erasing or changing history, but about respect for the young, diverse community using the chapel today. “His name is on our donor wall which is in the cloisters in the middle of the college. It will always be on the donor wall.
“It’s the fact that it’s a chapel and it’s a place of worship. In this day and age, in this community that we have in our chapel, with our very diverse student body, are you really saying to young people as they come in, this is what part of being in a place like Cambridge is about?”
Those objecting to the removal of the memorial told the Times that Rustat made the bulk of his wealth elsewhere and his investments in the Royal African Company represented just 1.3% of the money he had at the end of his life or gave away as a philanthropist. Edward Colston, whose statue was toppled and pushed into Bristol harbour last year during protests in support of Black Lives Matter, was deputy governor of the Royal African Company.