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Bristol University launches new project exploring the legacy of transatlantic slavery

The University of Bristol is leading a new project entitled ‘We are Bristol: reparative justice through collaborative research’. The project, led by academics from different disciplines, will explore the legacy of the slave trade in Bristol in various forms.

By Tia Bahia, BAME Affairs Correspondent

The University of Bristol is leading a new project entitled ‘We are Bristol: reparative justice through collaborative research.’

The initiative will work with local citizens and communities to build a more in depth understanding of how the city’s history of transatlantic slavery is still impacting Bristolians today.

Led by Olivette Otele, the university’s professor of History of Slavery and Memory of Enslavement, the project has been brought to fruition thanks to funding from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) citizen science scheme who have invested in a total of five projects, awarding the University just over £290,000 for the collaboration which puts people at the heart of the research.

Four projects, led by academics from different disciplines, will explore the legacy of the slave trade in Bristol in various forms.

Professor Otele said: ‘Bristol’s economic, social and cultural life, and the lived experience of its citizens, have been shaped by transatlantic slavery, with the city struggling to address the legacies of this past. Recent events in Bristol, such as the toppling of Edward Colston statue, have brought into sharp focus the inequalities that still exist and a strong feeling that the history of the city, how it is represented and taught, still remains unresolved.

‘Academics, city partners, citizens and community groups will work together to discuss and examine these important issues to build a greater understanding of the impacts of transatlantic slavery and, importantly, how the city can learn lessons and make changes.’

Four projects will be led by academics from the University’s Centre for Black Humanities, the first of which will investigate the lives of Bristol’s slave owners and those they enslaved. Dr Richard Stone from the Department of History will lead this, collaborating with citizen researchers to identify Bristol’s slave owners and find out how their money has shaped Bristol’s built environment, businesses and charities using records of compensation awarded when slavery was abolished in 1834.

Dr Stone said: ‘We talk a lot about how Bristol has benefited from slavery, but we don’t really have a concrete sense of how much and where. So, the aim of this project is for a team of Bristol researchers to use their skills, both existing and new, to provide some answers to these questions.

‘More importantly, though, we hope to address the problem of the invisibility of the enslaved in Bristol. So now, when looking at a grand Victorian building, you will also be able to see the names of the enslaved people whose labours generated the wealth that built it.’

Another academic from the Department of History, Dr Jessica Moody will lead the second project identifying sites of memory in Bristol’s cityscape, along with creative partners Cleo Lake and Kwesi Johnson in collaboration with citizens, artists and dance groups.

The team plans to explore these sites and their connections to the histories of transatlantic enslavement by using creative practice-led approaches and ensuring the knowledge and experiences of Bristolians are the most prominent aspect of the research.

The project will result in creative performances as a form of memorialisation at the identified cites as well as an augmented reality app through which these can be viewed. Dr Moody said: ‘We believe that the full impact and trauma of transatlantic enslavement as well as its complex ongoing legacies cannot be understood solely through standard historical, scientific or academic methods.

‘This is an area where the creative arts make a powerful and necessary intervention in research and engagement. Through sharing the creative responses developed through this project via an augmented reality app, we can add alternative narratives and engagements with this history and its legacies onto sites in Bristol chosen by our citizen scientists.’

Dr Joanna Burch-Brown, current co-chair of the Bristol History Commission and Senior Lecturer in Philosophy is directing the third project titled ‘Bridging Histories’ which will create a global learning resource for communities exploring issues of contested heritage. The resource is intended to educate its users through exploring street-level history, family history, sharing recipes and poems, being monument detectives and will involve learners doing something simple to make change in themselves and their community.

Dr Burch-Brown said: ‘People can join in as individuals, or as groups. Everything participants create will be shared online via social media, creating a public library of positive stories connecting diverse corners of our communities.’

The fourth and final project is lead by a partnership between Dr Marie-Annick Gournet from the Department of English and the Global Majority Teachers Network and Bristol City Council’s education and Skills Directorate. They will examine how slavery and its legacy is linked to the inequalities and racism experienced by people of colour in the education sector.

Speaking on this project, Dr Gournet said: ‘The aim of this package is to work with teachers as citizen scientists to develop ways of understanding and teaching of the different aspects of that legacy, equipping them to be agents for change and enhance their own and other educators' ability to address inequalities.’

Bristol City Council’s Deputy Mayor, Councillor Asher Craig, commented on the value of the project, stating: ‘Listening to and learning from our communities is an important part of our approach at the council. We’ve partnered with the university in this research to ensure we continue to explore the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and its continuing impact on the city and its communities.

‘Bristol has a rich and varied past and the legacy of the transatlantic slavery is one that still impacts citizens in a number of different ways. It’s important that we take the time to learn more now to ensure future generations are educated and feel connected to the history of our city. And that individually and as a collective we can move forward together to build a city of unity, hope and ambition.’

Featured Image: Epigram / Rufus Atkins / Lucy O'Neill

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