Wales is doing 'something unique' in tackling its colonial past, says leading historian

Professor Olivette Otele discusses colonialism, history and Newport with Adrian Masters

Wales is further ahead in taking steps to come to terms with its colonial past than other parts of the UK, according to a leading slavery historian.

Professor Olivette Otele said that changes to the school curriculum to include the histories of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people is "something unique".

She made the comments on ITV Cymru Wales' Face to Face, where she talked about her life, background and views on some big issues at the centre of the political debate.

Professor Otele's latest book, 'African Europeans', was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and delves into their unacknowledged role in shaping the continent.

Professor Otele said the protests that were sparked by the death of George Floyd inspired change. Credit: ITV Wales

Born in Cameroon and brought up in France, she now lives in Newport and is Professor of History and the Memory of Slavery at Bristol University.

She is the first black woman to be a professor of slavery history.

In 2020, she was included in a list of the 100 Greatest Black Britons and this year was one of the judges of the International Booker Prize.

She said the outpouring of protest that followed the death of George Floyd in the United States and the Black Lives Matter movement have both contributed to people thinking again about the past and the present in order to change the future.

Professor Otele also praised the steps being taken by the Welsh Government, which include an audit of statues and place names with colonial links, a two-stage anti-racism strategy and changes to the curriculum.

A statue of slave owner Sir Thomas Picton was boarded up in Cardiff City Hall in July 2020. Credit: ITV Wales

In July 2020, a statue of slave owner Sir Thomas Picton was boarded up and prepared for removal from Cardiff City Hall.

"What people don't realise is that it's not done in the rest of the country yet," she explained.

"It means that Wales is actually looking at various aspects of that. That's not just looking at the past but at changing things, rewriting certain narratives and engaging with very difficult and traumatic subjects."

She revealed how history is a "passion" for her that she can trace back to her 'incredible storyteller' grandmother, who told her their family's history, her community's history and colonial history all combined with Cameroonian fables.

But she explained how she is worried that the subject hasn't always been taught well, making it seem irrelevant to some young people.

"Actually I understand their frustration," she said.

"I think it's the way history has been told and taught to them. And that's why they feel that there's no connection from past and present.

"But past and present is constant. We constantly engage with our past and I think one of the ways that we want to engage with people in order to bring them to like history, is actually showing them how this has shaped communities across the globe and their communities in particular."

Professor Otele said Newport is the first place that has truly felt like home. Credit: PA Images

She also shared her passion for literature and particularly the work of Newport poet W.H. Davies, who she said she admires for his storytelling skills and the connection with her adopted home city.

Professor Otele explained how after experiencing racism in France, both direct and indirect, physical and intellectual, she found a welcome and a new home in Wales.

"France was this place where you put on your boxing gloves and you go and tackle the world.

"For the very first time in my entire life I felt at home [in Wales]. People were incredibly nice - remember I came from Paris - so people would talk to me for no reason, at bus stops, on the street, in the shops, and were incredibly kind.

"I felt something that I've never felt before, which was something strange, which is, I was at home.

"I felt at home, and I couldn't really put words to these things, but what I did know is that when I would go back to Paris I would feel some kind of anxiety come back."