LONDON — When a British court in December released four Black Lives Matter protesters from criminal damages for the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, in June 2020, it was due in part to the expert testimony of David Olusoga .
Olusoga, a historian whose work focuses on race, slavery and empire, felt an obligation to address the court on behalf of the defense, he said in a recent interview, because “I’ve been vocal about this history.”
At the trial in Bristol, the city in southwestern England where Colston’s statue was toppled, Olusoga, 52, told the jury about Colston’s prominent role in the slave trade and the atrocities suffered by the African people who killed Colston. sold into slavery.
The careful judicial decision was greeted with concern by some in Britain and relief by others, and Olusoga’s role in the defense is just one recent example of the impact of his work on British society.
Olusoga’s courtroom comments match a frequent focus of his broader work as one of the country’s most prominent public historians: that long-forgotten or buried injustices of the past can be addressed in the present day in public, accessible media.
Olusoga’s latest TV work is “One Thousand Years of Slavery,” which premieres Monday on the Smithsonian Channel. The show, which he co-produced with Bassett Vance Productions, a production company headed by Courtney B. Vance and Angela Bassett, takes a broad, global look at slavery through the family stories of public figures such as Senator Cory Booker and actor David Harehout.
One of Olusoga’s best-known projects is ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’, which explored the long and fraught relationship between black people and Britain through a BBC television series accompanied by a bestseller, introducing many to Black communities here dating from Roman times.
‘I’m interested in the history we don’t tell. I’m not interested in retelling stories we’ve told a thousand times,” Olusoga said. “I’m interested in telling unknown stories.”
Olusoga, who is half Nigerian, traces this focus to his mother who told him as a child that Nigerian soldiers served in World War II. At the time, his interest in history overlapped with his efforts to understand his black and British identity, he said. “It made me realize that not only was there more to me, but I wasn’t being told the whole truth,” he said. “And a lot of what I do is from that moment of realization.”
The historian was born in Lagos to a Nigerian father and a white British mother. He moved to Britain as a child and grew up in the North East of England with his mother and siblings. In the book Black and British, he spoke of the racial tensions of the 1970s and 1980s and a campaign of racial abuse his family experienced, forcing them to leave their homes.
Despite having a hard time at school – Olusoga was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 14 – he developed a love for history from a favorite teacher and the television he watched. He studied history at university, but chose a television career over academia. For Olusoga, “history was, of course, public,” he said. “I made a very conscious decision to leave the universities and go into television to make history.”
After 15 years in TV production, he started appearing in front of the camera. He is now a fixture on British screens with shows like ‘A House Through Time’, each season telling the story of a British home and its inhabitants through the ages. In 2019, Olusoga was awarded an Order of the British Empire for services to history and community integration (which he found difficult to accept due to its association with the empire’s violent acts).
In an email, Mary Beard, the author of “Women and Power” and a professor of classical languages at Cambridge University, praised Olusoga’s persuasiveness. She recalled that while filming “Black and British” with Olusoga in a rural English village, an elderly white woman said she was “proud” to know that one of the earliest inhabitants of her village had been black after she saw a reconstruction of the old woman’s face.
“That’s the Olusoga effect,” said Beard, also one of Britain’s best-known historians. “He has a real gift for telling stories honestly and convincing people to see things differently. It is a very rare gift.”
This is also evident in the impact of ‘Unremembered’, a 2019 documentary made by his production company, Uplands Television. The show, hosted by David Lammy, a black MP, raised public awareness that African and Asian soldiers who died in World War I were not commemorated in the same way as their white comrades, and many lie in unmarked graves. The program eventually led to a public apology from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government.
In recent years, Olivette Otele, Britain’s first black female history professor and author of “African Europeans: An Untold History,” has seen a shift in the way the black experience is incorporated into British and European history, which she partially attributes to Olusoga.
“In academia we are doing everything we can, but to democratize and reach a wider audience has made such a huge difference, so much so that it’s becoming normal to be involved with these topics,” Otele said in a recent interview.
For Olusoga, this shift was surprising. “I’ve told these stories on radio and television and fought to tell them all my career, and I’ve done nothing else,” he said. “I think what’s happened is that the world around me has changed and I think people are more interested in listening.”
At the same time, since the assassination of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, there have been controversial debates about what should be included in British public history. In late 2020, following the toppling of Colston’s statue, the British conservation charity, the National Trust, released a report examining the links between some of its sites and colonialism and slavery. The report was dismissed as “wake up” by some Conservative politicians and many in the right-wing British press.
Still, Olusoga said such debates show that certain segments of the population reject the uglier elements of British history. The past is sometimes used to make British people feel “we were magical people from a magical island that has always been on the right side of history,” he said.
But “if you only want to tell yourself the positive stories from your past,” he said, “that necessarily means you can’t deal honestly with your past.”
He added: “And that’s the issue of Britain.”