Illustrations by Maria-Ines Gul

Sonita Alleyne: ‘If you know something’s stolen, what do you do? You give it back’

The master of Jesus College, Cambridge on returning a Benin Bronze and the fight to remove a memorial to slave-trader Tobias Rustat from the college chapel
March 3, 2022

Sonita Alleyne has the archbishop of Canterbury on her side, and quite a few Cambridge historians beside themselves with fury. The historians could—just about—live with losing the bronze cockerel, but they absolutely drew the line at the marble memorial.

We’re talking about Jesus College, Cambridge where Alleyne, Barbados-born and Walthamstow-raised, has been master since October 2019. The Okukor bronze rooster —looted from Benin in 1897—is now safely back in Nigeria with feathers ruffled but no breach of the peace. A memorial stone designed by Grinling Gibbons to commemorate Tobias Rustat, a courtier to Charles II who was involved with the slave-trading Royal African Company, has, however, proved far more contentious. 

A plan to remove the 330-year-old stone from the chapel and display it in an archival space has led to a specially convened ecclesiastical court hearing on the matter. If Rustat falls, argue Alleyne’s opponents, it could lead to an “iconoclasm greater than any since the days of Cromwell.”

The ecclesiastical court has yet to deliver its verdict when I catch up with Alleyne over video from Cambridge. I ask how she felt sitting in the chapel looking at the memorial stone. “It’s just not right,” she responds briskly. “There’s certain stuff in your life which you have to go through as a black person to fit into a particular space. And there just comes a point when you think, ‘no, I don’t have to do that
any more.’”

“I’m a strong woman,” says Alleyne, a former music production entrepreneur now in her early fifties who was brought up as a Seventh Day Adventist. “The Church in the 17th century had slaves. 

But today, in the 21st century, the idea that people would merely say, ‘okay, it’s fine to pray under the memorial to a slave trader and just get on with it… put up and shut up…’ It’s something that people don’t have to do.”

“There’s certain stuff in your life which you have to go through as a black person to fit into a particular space

She has met some cross alumni—albeit had “absolutely civil” encounters with them—but draws comfort from the support of the college fellowship, which had established a Legacy of Slavery Working Party even before her arrival. “The fellowship are completely resolute on this. Jesus is becoming quite a diverse college.”

What about the charge that Jesus has been happy to take money from China, a country with a rather more contemporary record of slavery? “If you go to our website, you’ll see we’ve published the last five years of monies from China. All income sources from China amount to 1.6 per cent. Our income from China in 2021 was £14,000.” She sounds a bit exasperated at the questioning. “It’s the press reading the press as opposed to doing any journalism and investigating.” I promise to look at the college website. “If you were coming for a job interview,” she bursts into giggles, “you so wouldn’t get the job.”

She was pleased—and surprised—when Justin Welby waded in with his support, asking: “why is it so much agony to remove a memorial
to slavery?” 

Would she advise the British Museum to give back its Benin Bronzes? “I think that it’s a really basic, human thing. If you know something’s stolen, what do you do? You give it back.” She has little time for the tortured arguments about what Benin was like in 1897 and how dependent it was itself on slavery. “The return of the Okukor was a big deal in Nigeria, it was watched all over the country. There was one particular shot, with three children looking at it with such pride. This was their heritage. And I was supposed to ask whether they had slavery in their own background? I’m sorry, I’m from the east end of London; we’re just not that rude!”