Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

View of Slavery Atlanto-centric? Symposium Slavery in the Dutch Empire


In the Netherlands slavery is usually associated with Atlantic slavery. The current view of slavery might even be called 'Atlanto-centric'.

Wrongly so, was the opinion of the three young researchers who spoke at this symposium organized on September 25 by IISH-KNAW. Figures presented by IISH researcher Matthias van Rossum - some of which were previously unpublished - showed for example, that slavery in the Dutch empire in the East was on a similar scale as in the West.

In the seventeenth century the slave trade in the VOC areas was even more extensive than that under Dutch control in the West. This ratio was not reversed until the second half of the eighteenth century.

Slavery on a large scale

For Ulbe Bosma, senior researcher of the Institute and professor at the VU, slavery in the East was not a new phenomenon. He stressed the importance of global comparative research and  introduced Bruno Laskers book Human Bondage in Southeast Asia, which already made a case for a comparative and long-term perspective on the development of various forms of forced labour in 1951.

The presentations of both Matthias van Rossum and Kate Ekama (PhD candidate at the University of Leiden) showed clearly that - at least where slavery is concerned- it was not a 'mild native' version, but slavery on a large scale in many sectors of the economy. Besides, slaves were also traded and owned by VOC employees in significant numbers.

The presentations were based on 'fresh' research and were full of new insights into the diversity of slavery in the Dutch Empire. Kate Ekama, for instance, discussed the cultural interaction, origin, position and opportunities of slaves in Colombo, Ceylon on the basis of a lawsuit.

Iberian slavery

Leiden researcher Karwan Fatah Black - who presented the Western hemisphere during this evening - highlighted slavery in the city of Paramaribo. He described this urban slavery as a form of labour integrated in the household, where the private and commercial deployment of slaves were intertwined. This form existed throughout the Dutch Empire, and before that already in the Portuguese sphere of influence. Fatah-Black even went as far as stating that research into the history of Iberian slavery is of great importance to obtain insight into the roots of Dutch slavery.

This 'knowledge under development' took its toll on the audience consisting of people with a broad range of interests. The existing view of Dutch slavery that many had was turned a little on its head by what was presented here.

Adjust the old view?

The definition of slavery remained a recurring theme throughout the evening (distinguishing characteristics that came up were among others: sellable property, traded and shipped over long distances, the legal position (as a witness or victim of crime) etc,). Several questions from the audience were about this and gave the impression that people were looking for similarities and differences with the standardized view of slavery as known on the plantations in the West. The latter was further underlined by KITLV director Gert Oostindie, in the final conclusion.

That this search was not ready yet at the end of the evening, is quite understandable. The presentations lead, after all, to the updating of an old existing view and more new questions ... and more research.

Tamira Combrink



Picture: KITLV Collection



8 October 2014