Olivette Otele: UK’s first female black history professor to research Bristol’s links to slave trade

The University of Bristol has hired Olivette Otele as its first professor of the history of slavery – and she plans to investigate the university’s ties to the slave trade

Olivette Otele for BBC History Magazine.

The UK’s first female black history professor is to begin a two-year research project investigating Bristol’s ties with the slave trade, it has been announced.

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Professor Olivette Otele will examine legacies of the city’s colonial past for the University of Bristol, following her appointment as the institution’s first professor of the history of slavery.

As part of her research, Otele will look specifically at the University of Bristol’s role in the transatlantic slave trade – a move that coincides with increasing calls for “reparative justice” within UK universities.

Commenting on her new role, Professor Otele said: “I hope to bring together Bristolians from all communities, and scholars, artists and educators who are willing to contribute to a stronger and fairer society.

“I want students to see me as a facilitator of a dialogue that needs to take place and that is about the role of the University of Bristol in the transatlantic slave trade.”

“I want to produce a rigorous and an extensive piece of research that will be relevant to the university, to the city and that will be a landmark in the way Britain examines, acknowledges and teaches the history of enslavement.”

Although the University of Bristol, founded in 1909, is thought not to be a “direct beneficiary of the slave trade”, it did “financially benefit” from families who made money through businesses linked to slavery.

This is according to Professor Judith Squires, provost and deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Bristol, who hopes that Otele’s research will help create a more inclusive environment within the university:

“[Professor Otele’s] new role provides us with a unique and important opportunity to interrogate our history; explore the university’s historical links to slavery and to debate how we should best respond to our past in order to shape our future as an inclusive University community,” Squire says.

Otele has previously commented on campaigns to decolonise history within UK universities. Earlier this year, for example, she discussed the underrepresentation of ethnicity in positions in higher education in an article for HistoryExtra:

“History needs to be diverse,” she wrote. “It means having a rich number of resources that include scholars from the so-called Global South as well as Afro-Asian-American-Europeans.

“However, diversity cannot be a substitute to decolonising. Decolonising also means addressing unequivocally the issue of the low number of people of colour hired in these institutions to teach those histories. Who teaches matters as much as what is taught.”

Professor Otele will take up her new role at the University of Bristol in January 2020. She became the UK’s first female black history professor in 2018, after being awarded a professorship and a chair in history by Bath Spa University. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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She also joined our 2018 discussion on 100 women from history who changed the world, which you can watch below: