The University of Bristol has hired its first Professor of the History of Slavery, in order to research its ties to the slave trade and whether the university should apologise for its past.
The newly created ‘History of Slavery’ position will be filled by Professor Olivette Otele, a Bath Spa University professor who specialises in the colonial history of Britain and France. Last year she became the United Kingdom’s first black woman history professor, a distinction which landed her on the BBC’s Top 100 Women of 2018.
Otele has been commissioned to begin a two-year research project, looking into historical ties that the university and the city of Bristol have with the transatlantic slave trade.
Bristol University was founded in 1909, nearly 80 years after the United Kingdom had abolished slavery.
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In a press release from Bristol University, Professor Otele said: “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.”
Students at Bristol campaigned earlier this year to rename the Wills Memorial Tower, because its namesake and Bristol’s founding chancellor, Henry Overton Wills III, had used the money he earned in the slave-connected tobacco trade in America to fund the university’s charter.
Professor Judith Squires, Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Bristol, 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.”
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Bristol is just the latest university in the UK to look into its connections to slavery.
Last year, Glasgow University issued a public apology for receiving approximately £200 in donations from people tied to the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. The university announced that it would try to atone for their past by building a memorial to the victims of slavery and by establishing a centre to the study of slavery.
Cambridge University also commissioned a research project earlier this year to see what connections to slavery the university had, and how much it owed in reparations.