Introducing the new Professor of the History of Slavery

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By Robin Connolly, Features Editor

Talking histories of slavery and the university, renaming Bristol's buildings and inclusion with Olivette Otele, who will be joining the Faculty of History in January.

‘Bristol is incredible.’ ‘I'm based in another university at the moment. And I'm teaching the history of Bristol.’ ‘It will be fantastic to have that history of Bristol, taught at Bristol with new elements, new archival material’, ‘to integrate the past and the present with the memorialization of the past.’

Delightful, intelligent and genuinely brimming over with enthusiasm, Olivette Otele and I discuss her research plans, Bristol as a historic slave trading port and inclusion in universities.

It will be fantastic to have that history of Bristol, taught at Bristol with new elements, new archival material Olivette Otele

I’m excited to meet her – the news broke at midnight and already the phrase ‘history of slavery’ is trending on Twitter. Meanwhile, BME friends on Facebook are sharing articles with proclamations of delight that the first Black female Professor of History is coming to work at the University.

I’m interested to hear about the weight and responsibilities of such a role in the city of Bristol, where in the year 0f 1750 alone, almost half of the total number of slaves transported to the British Caribbean and North Africa left via Bristol ships. Bristol is a city where the slave trade was, and still is, visibly entrenched – from street names, to memorial buildings, to statues.

‘That role is really crucial for the history of the city, first of all, and at university level is the first one to look at the links between the university and its slavering past - it's slave past,’ says Otele. She emphasises that ‘by appointing me it means that university is ready to deal with that past’.

As part of her post, Otele will spend two years on a research project, studying both the city’s and the University’s links to the transatlantic slave trade. She tells me how she hopes to analyse information about those who donated to the setting up of the university, alongside details about those who received compensation money in the 19th century, in order to ‘cross check and see who was actually involved in the making of the university.’

by appointing me it means that university is ready to deal with that past Olivette Otele

Discussing these donations, she explains, ‘you know, you have big donors, but you also have small companies who were involved in funding the University.’ She discloses that she will also look at ‘various other aspects as well. The estate, for example.’ The estate ‘is also another very important topic because some people might not have direct links with the university as donors, but they actually contributed to the wealth of the university’, through the contribution to the university’s portfolio – ‘their houses and things like that.’

Olivette Otele and I discuss her research plans | Epigram / Patrick Sullivan

Speaking of donors, the perhaps inevitable question of where Otele stands on the renaming debate crops up in conversation. In Bristol, this is a discussion which is particularly provocative. Colston Hall’s promise to rebrand as a part of its relaunch in 2020 is the most recent development in a long-standing Bristolian dispute about whether we should rename buildings that are seen to ‘glorify’ the slave trade, or whether that is equal to the erasure of history.

It is with feeling that Otele speaks on this matter. ‘It really is an interesting question because, as a historian, I would say, well, let's keep that history, it needs to be visible. But actually, that history is also painful for part of the population. So, it's not my place to decide what should be done, but it's the place of all Bristolians.’

‘It really is about what Bristol, where Bristol stands.’ On her place in the making of that decision, she articulated that she is ‘just one element, one tiny element who's bringing the kind of historical aspects and of course my engagement as person from African descent.’

Otele is certainly qualified to be weighing in on these conversations. In 2018, she became the first Black woman to hold a Professorship in History. I want to find out more about how this feels and what she believes needs to be done in universities in general, as well as in Bristol, to promote inclusion and to encourage young Black women into the profession.

She discloses to me that this is a topic which is close to her heart, that ‘as fantastic as it is to be the first, I don't want to be the only one. I have no interest in that.’ She goes on ‘I'm hoping that seeing me as perhaps a model, they would consider looking into academia.’

as a historian, I would say, well, let's keep that history, it needs to be visible. But actually, that history is also painful for part of the population Olivette Otele

She cites Royal Historical Society research (of which she’s Vice-President), which has found that ‘at undergraduate level, the topic is still attracting a few people from minority ethnic background. But as you go along, they don't necessarily lose interest, but there are ways we lose them.

‘And these reasons are varied, you know, from racism, to economic questions. So traditionally, we know with figures that the black community is also - the vast majority of black community is working class. So, the economic level is incredibly important and it's preventing some of these people from having access to certain funds really, to continue.’

While not wanting to speak on behalf of the University at this point, Otele hints that perhaps the best ways to do this will be by providing financial backing for students, perhaps through grants. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Our conversation leaves me feeling hopeful for the department of History at Bristol. It will be exciting to see such a dynamic figure at work in the department. I never normally look forward to January – cold and grey days, exam prep and post-Christmas blues often seem to leave the bitter taste of anti-climax. However, this year, it looks like we’ll have something to anticipate.

Featured: Epigram / Patrick Sullivan


Let us know in the comments what you think about this new role at the University!

AUTHOR

Robin Connolly

Was once told that writing is the only thing I'm good at. Still working out whether or not that's a compliment.