David Olusoga


Read a transcript of this video.


David Olusoga is a British-Nigerian historian, broadcaster and film-maker.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria he’s a multi award-winning documentary maker and is the presenter of the BBC 2 Series 'The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire' and the recent acclaimed BBC documentary 'Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners'. He has also appeared on numerous BBC live events and is a regular presenter on The One Show.

David is also an award-winning author. His first book was The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism (Faber & Faber 2010). His recent book The World’s War (Head of Zeus, 2014), was the winner of the World War One Book of the Year at the Political Book Awards 2015. David was also a contributor to the Oxford Companion to Black British History.

He is currently writing a new history of slavery entitled, 5000 Years a Slave, and a new history of the British colonisation of Tasmania entitled White Slavery & the Black War. David has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Nation and BBC History Magazine.

As a producer on TV and radio David’s programmes have explored the themes of empire, military-history, race, slavery, and contemporary culture in the UK and USA.

David gave the Dorothy Kuya Slavery Remembrance Lecture at the International Slavery Museum in 2015. He has joined an illustrious roll call of speakers who in recent years have included civil rights campaigner Mr Martin Luther King III, award-winning film director Amma Asante, renowned activist and scholar Dr Maulana Karenga, civil rights campaigner Diane Nash, Zimbabwe's first Black cricketer Henry Olonga and poet Lemn Sissay. 

Video transcript

David Olusoga: I have a deep love for this City of Liverpool. It was here that I came to do my first degree and it was here that I chose to live for three years. And one of the reasons I wanted to come to Liverpool University was because back then, in the 1990s, it was one of the only places where you could study slavery and that’s what I did when I came here and it was an important and pivotal moment in my life. 

I’m an immigrant to Britain and that’s not a hugely fashionable thing to say at the moment. I came to this country as a young boy from Nigeria and I’m a product of the Empire, as are about one in nine people in this country today. 

And I always believed when I was growing up in the North of England, the North East, that understanding the forces of the Empire, the forces that led to my own existence was, critical to making sense of my life - who I was and why I was here. I wanted to understand the forces that intertwined the histories of West Africa, where my father’s family come from and this country; they’re the same forces that helped build this city, that helped pay for the docks that we’re in at the moment. And those forces; Empire, colonisation, slavery, and sadly the racism that was invented to justify and rationalise them are powerful, world changing forces and the effects of them still live on – I don’t need to tell anybody that. 

...Do we now need to reimagine what we mean by Black history, what it is and, as I said, what it is and what it could be? It seems to me that there’s a quiet revolution going on in academia, that’s reframing Black British history, that’s thrusting it further back into the chronological past and seeing it as a bigger and a more global phenomenon and that’s what I’d like to talk about a bit later. But, let’s start with some facts that should be obvious, because it’s impossible, or at least it should be impossible, to explore the history of Britain without encountering Black people – women and men of African descent.

…Without understanding all of this, without  being able to recognise the presence and the impact of people of African descent have had upon our country, it’s impossible to make sense of our collective history and that should be obvious, but often I don’t think that it is.

...In my view, and this is a personal view, we’ve been doing the same thing for too long and at times we’ve been talking to ourselves. So, for example, Black British history - in my view again - has tended to focus too much on the story of settlement, Now I’m not saying settlement’s not important, I’m not saying it’s not interesting, I’m an immigrant, I settled here myself. I’d love to see more academic work done about what it was like, for example, in the 1960s when my father came here from Nigeria, but I think I’d rather see Black British history become part of mainstream British history. I’d rather see popular books that sold, I’d rather see books that weren’t about Black British history but it felt it was an obligation to mention it.

...One of the myths about Black history and the history of slavery is that it’s only of interest to Black people - that it’s for Black people, that it’s a concession. I think this is fundamentally and demonstrably untrue. However, I do wonder if those of us who write books, or make TV programmes and our colleagues in the academic world and elsewhere might inadvertently have helped allow that idea to persist and even flourish.

...With the ‘Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project’... at University College London (UCL)... has examined, and is continuing to examine the T71 files at the National Archives - 1,631 volumes of leather bound ledgers and bundles of letters that have been in the archives for 180 years. For the most part they’ve been unexamined and of little interest. What they are is the records and the correspondence of the Slave Compensation Commission.

What the work that UCL has done and what the series that we made together has reminded people of, is that the parts of British history that we think we know, the Slavery Abolition Act that was so famously passed through Parliament in the summer of 1833 and that formally freed 800,000 Africans who were the legal property of Britain’s slave owners. That that same Act contained the provision for the financial compensation of the owners of those human beings by the British taxpayer for the loss of their property.

...The Slave Compensation Commission was a Government body established to evaluate the claims of the slave owners and administer and distribute the £20miliion that the Government had set aside to pay off the slave owners. That sum represented 40% of Government spending for the year 1834 - it’s the modern equivalent of between 16 and 17 billion pounds today. 

The records, the T71 files that name all of the slave owners were an unintended by-product of that compensation scheme and they represent a near clear, near complete census of British slavery as it was on 1st August 1834, the day the system ended. For that one day we have a full list of the slave owners and who they were. 

Now that’s pretty heavy history - its archive based documentary history. It’s not the sort of stuff that traditionally gets commissioned, or does well on British historical television, but I think the reaction to the story has been heartening and to me it shows that Black history can be more inclusive, more mainstream. Not because of any genius on the part of any of us who made the series but because I think the desire is out there. 

The series did as well as any series on a more traditional subject on the BBC’s channels and 14% of the audience were Black and minority ethnic, which is a high percentage. But, what I’m also proud of, is that 86% of people who tuned in were white. They tuned in to watch a series based on dry academic documents that uncovered a forgotten aspect of our history and that revealed that the one celebratory, redemptive chapter of British history has this toxic element of compensation. These uncomfortable truths, this is difficult history and yet people watched. 

...While you yourself might not be mixed race and you might not be in a mixed race relationship, you might still be a member of a mixed race extended family. That experience is becoming, if not ubiquitous, is becoming banal it’s so normal. 

Black people in Britain today are doing what previous generations of Black Britons did. We’re doing what our Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian predecessors did – we’re amalgamating and integrating. This has been one of the patterns of our history and that history explains - helps explain - the modern trends. It puts them into a deeper context and it discredits, in my view, the idea that Black Britain can be understood separately, that Black British history can ever be separate and marginal. 

We need, in my view - to conclude - a new Black British history and I’d like to play a small role in forging it but it will be a huge effort and it will be built on the efforts of the pioneers, the historians of the 70s and 80s.

Thank you very much.