Posted on October 31, 2019

Bristol University Hires Slavery History Professor to See Whether It Needs to Apologise for Colonial Past

Camilla Turner, Telegraph, October 30, 2019

Bristol University has hired a professor of slavery history in an attempt to discover whether it needs to apologise for its colonial past.

The institution has commissioned Prof Olivette Otele, an expert in the history of colonialism in Britain and France, to carry out a two year research project into the involvement of the University of Bristol and the wider city in the transatlantic slave trade.

The university said it will decide at the end of the two years how to appropriately acknowledge its past links with colonialism, which could include making a public apology or statement.

It comes after a campaign by Bristol students to rename the Wills Memorial Building, which was named after the university’s founding chancellor Henry Overton Wills III. The Wills family derived their wealth from shipping tobacco from the New World into Bristol.

The university announced in 2017 that it would not rename the building, saying: “We cannot alter the past but we can enable reflection upon it and add to knowledge about slavery past and present.”

Bristol is the latest institution to investigate its past links with colonialism.

It pledged to raise £20 million over the next 20 years to fund a new research centre which will be a joint venture with the University of the West Indies.

Cambridge University has also launched an inquiry into how the 800-year-old institution benefited from the slave trade.

Researchers have been commissioned to pour over the university’s archives to how much it gained from the “Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era”.

The two-year inquiry will examine whether financial bequests made to departments, libraries and museums were made possible from the profits of slavery.

It will also probe how far Cambridge academics “reinforced and validated race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th Century”.

Bristol’s official participation in the transatlantic slave trade started in 1698, though experts say Bristolian ships illegally traded in slaves well before then.

Bristol merchants financed more than 2,000 slaving voyages between 1698 and 1807, with ships carrying more than 500,000 people from Africa to slave labour in the Americas.

Professor Judith Squires, Bristol University’s provost and deputy vice-Chancellor said: “As an institution founded in 1909, we are not a direct beneficiary of the slave trade, but we fully acknowledge that we financially benefited indirectly via philanthropic support from families who had made money from businesses involved in the transatlantic slave trade.

“This new role provides us with a unique and important opportunity to interrogate our history, working with staff, students and local communities to 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.”

Olivette Otele