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

Managing Diversity: Supervising Functions in Managing Colonial Workplaces

IISG: Prof Ulbe Bosma (supervisor) and Dr Matthias van Rossum (co-supervisor)

Leiden Partners: Prof Cátia Antunes(link is external) and Dr Karwan Fatah Black

The Dutch Early Modern empire comprised workers of European, Asian, African, American and mestizo descent (Lucassen 2004; Meuwese 2012; Van Rossum 2014), who were also subdivided along occupational lines (sailors, soldiers, artisans) and labor relations (contract, enslavement, corvée, convict). Although the vertical and horizontal relations influencing the stratification of these workforces were broadly similar across the empire, local dynamics or origin, culture, religion and status differed greatly and changed over time. The question of how workers related to each other has been crucial to debates on the history of class, race and intercultural relations in the past decades. For the Atlantic world, it has been argued that the moment of Early Modern overseas expansion gave rise to a ‘proto-proletariat’ (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000), while this expansion is simultaneously claimed to have functioned as the birth ground of racialization (Christopher 2006). On the one hand, the Indian Ocean World has been characterized as being marked by diversity and segmentation, and lacking outspoken contacts or solidarities between different groups of workers (for South Africa: Worden 2007; 2012), while, on the other hand, this view has been opposed in literature stressing the Indian Ocean World’s openness and fluidity (Raben 1996; Niemeijer 2005; Ulrich 2010).

We hypothesize that patters of workplace differentiation were the outcome of colonial institutional actors’ strategies for extending control over a highly diverse working force in interplay with the strategies and negotiating powers of the various groups of workers involved. Strategies of control and negotiating power varied considerably, depending especially on status (free/unfree) and origin (subject/foreigner). Stratification and racialization were not evident in themselves, as the case of European and Asian sailors indicates (Van Rossum 2014). However, societal differences and inequalities were imported into working environments, thus creating dynamics of differentiation that became increasingly institutionalized over time. This project will study how and why patterns of employment in relation to diversity changed over time by selecting a variety of cases (workplaces) with pivotal functions within the Dutch empire.

The study of the highly diverse working populations of the Dutch overseas empire provides a crucial test for assessing these conflicting perspectives on the historical dynamics of diversity and the development of patterns of differentiation. Labor relations have mainly been analyzed from the perspective of vertical relations (the relations between workers and employers or authorities), but it is increasingly recognized that the dynamics of horizontal relations (between workers) are no less important. Lower supervising functions were a pivotal part of the day-to-day management of such highly diverse workforces, and therefore played a crucial role in the formation of both horizontal and vertical relations. The function of slave overseer or mandoor, for example, could be performed by enslaved, free or contract workers. Furthermore, the origin of mandoors could vary from Europeans and Eurasians to Asians and Africans.

The development of labor relations and patterns of employment will be studied by examining occupational groups most pivotal to the Dutch overseas empire: soldiers, sailors and artisans. These groups of workers were marked by high degrees of diversity – with both free and unfree European, Asia and African workers being employed side by side. Case studies will be selected from larger workplaces with large, culturally diverse populations (the ambachtskwartier of Batavia, for example) and from smaller workplaces (gemeene werken – public works, ship wharfs or forts), where diversity was perhaps equally high, but regulated differently.

Court records provide the most important set of archival materials for an in-depth analysis of living and working conditions. Selections will be made from court records dealing with incidents occurring in and around relevant workplaces. Although direct managerial or administrative archives of the smaller workplaces involved have not been systematically preserved, material is now increasingly  accessible through digitized local archival series, thus providing insights into how these workplaces were managed. These sources will be further contextualized by relevant private archives (e.g. Radermachers, Nederburgh, Brugmans).


Project outline