Gopal: “Few undergrads produce work this weak” SCANPIX / Sam Harrison

History professor David Abulafia has hit back at accusations of racism within his recent column, telling Varsity that tweets by colleague Professor Priyamvada Gopal were “insulting or potentially libellous.”

Gopal, a professor of postcolonial literature, had accused Abulafia on Twitter of a “dismissal” of writers of colour by describing Black historian David Olusoga as “eloquent” in his article published last Thursday (6/1) on the “Colston Four” trial.

The Churchill professor and author of Insurgent Empire wrote: “Calling writers/scholars/intellectuals of colour ‘eloquent’ or ‘articulate’ – e.g Abulafia on Olusoga – can quite often be a little sleight of hand dismissal – ’yeah yeah yeah, you talk a good game, people are gonna like it, but you’re just whipping up passions, no substance.”

Gopal’s tweet was in response to an article on the verdict of the “Colston Four” written by Abulafia last Thursday.

Abulafia’s article, entitled “Nothing is sacred to the woke statue topplers”, argued that “excision doesn’t aid historical understanding: it is a year zero approach to history that means achievements and faults are both hidden away.”

The former chair of the History faculty wrote: “The choice of targets is inevitably selective and avoids those who are icons of the Left.”

Gopal, who led a recently disbanded group set-up to look into Churchill’s views on race and empire, attacked the article two days later (8/1), saying that “few undergrads produce work this weak after the first week.”

Adding that it served as an “exhibit” of what another user called “academics that champion bigotry with the thinnest veneer of scholarship, it’s that nothing they produce would pass an intro class, much less survive peer review, their heads are soft and they skate by on prestige.”

Abulafia, who won the prestigious Wolfson History Prize in 2020, told Varsity that he found the suggestion that his use of the word “eloquent” had a “racist overtone”, “insulting or possibly libellous.”


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“I have never heard the use of the word eloquent being linked to racism. David Olusuga has a marvellous ability to communicate, I admire that enormously. On the other hand he’s further along the spectrum when it comes to his acceptance of critical race theory, much further along the spectrum towards Professor Gopal obviously than I am, so I disagree with him. I think the word eloquent is the perfect word to use.”

Pressed on the suggestion that his work was “weak”, Abulafia said that “the evidence doesn’t support the idea that those of us who have tried to write history in a less politically charged way are terrible hacks who have somehow made it through.”

“Instead, this actually shows up the profound inadequacy of these people’s approach to scholarship. They are unscholarly and the place they belong in is communist Albania or the Soviet Union in its darkest days. That is the mental world where one feels they would be more comfortable.”

“I do worry about the deep divisions that seem to have opened up in history between those who espouse activist views and those who don’t with an enormous number in the middle who feel intimidated.”

The row comes amidst a wider debate on the University’s historical links to empire and slavery. A recent open letter called on the History faculty to rename the Seeley Library.

Varsity has contacted Professor Gopal for comment.