This is our story

Historian David Olusoga gave a fascinating lecture on Black British history to an enraptured GDST audience

Historian, writer and broadcaster, David Olusoga, told a GDST audience of thousands that Black British history didn’t exist when he was at school. “It was not mentioned in lessons, and it was not inside our textbooks,” he said.

Olusoga was speaking online, at a lecture organised by Bromley High School, to an audience of more than 4,000 GDST students, staff, alumnae and parents. The event also included hundreds of students, staff and families from Bromley High’s local partner schools – Bishop Justus School and Bonus Pastor School.

Olusoga, who grew up in Gateshead, north-east England, recounted how he was taught the intricacies of Britain’s Industrial Revolution while he was at school, but that “one critical detail was edited out” – “where did the raw cotton come from, the raw material that the 4,500 Lancashire mills used?”

The answer of course, was the deep South of the United States, where 1.8 million enslaved Africans picked cotton in the 18th and 19th centuries – the vast majority of which came to Great Britain, landing at Liverpool docks.

“People think Black British history began with the Windrush in 1948. That is so not the case”

“You cannot tell a wholehearted history of the Industrial Revolution without telling their story,” said Olusoga.

Olusoga said he hadn’t realised that Black people have been in Britain since the Roman Conquest until he went to university. “We have become very good at editing out stories of Black people and Britain… We have created the idea that Black history is somehow separate from British history,” he said.

But the evidence of Black British history is there, he said, if you just know where to look for it. For example, the cotton-carrying ships of Manchester’s industrial past exist on the city’s coat of arms still, and on the coat of arms of its two famous football clubs, Manchester City and Manchester United.

And our most loved public works of art carry such examples. In Trafalgar Square, a black man is clearly featured on one of the bronze reliefs at the base of Nelson’s column. Black sailors are recorded as being at the Battle of Trafalgar. One such sailor, a John Ephraim, was aboard the Temeraire, the ship made famous by JMW Turner in his painting The Fighting Temeraire.

And Olusoga told the audience about some of the amazing black women of British history too. Women such as Sarah Forbes Bonetta, given as a gift by the African King Ghezo to Queen Victoria, who later became godmother to Sarah’s own daughter.

“It is exciting. Black British history is growing and expanding”

Olusoga said: “Even a life as remarkable as that has been forgotten”

Or Dido Belle, born into slavery in the British West Indies but brought up by the Earl and Countess of Mansfield at Kenwood House in Hampstead.

“Our historians unwillingness means we have lost these people, these remarkable characters and their stories,” said Olusoga.

As a historian, Olusoga said rediscovering the role of Black British History is one of the most exciting places to be

“History is at its most exciting when it is developing – Black British History is growing and expanding,” he said.

Many people think that Black British History began in 1948 with the Windrush “that is so not the case”, he said.

During a Q& A with the audience, Olusoga was asked about ‘decolonising the curriculum’. He said the government was being slow to act but he believes “they will have to do it anyway”. “Just look at who is demanding change?” he told the audience. “It is young people and… it is the attitudes of the young who will win out in the end.”

Olusoga went on to say. “Young people in their teens and 20s don’t have the same relationship with history as that of my generation.” He remarked that for many older generations, history has become about fables and fairy tales. “I don’t see that need in the young people I teach.” He believes there has been a “generational shift” and young people are now more willing to confront the more uncomfortable aspects of our past.

Olusoga also said that we don’t talk about empire enough in Britain. “This is our global history, it ties us all together,” he said. He expressed surprise that the UK has no museum of empire considering that Britain once had the world’s largest empire with hundreds of millions of people. “We can’t tell our story without telling their story,” he said.

“Black British history is OUR history.”