Universiteit Leiden

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Raising the colonial debate: ‘You have to create a story that’s easy to understand’

How can we best tell the current generations about some of the darkest parts of our past? To answer this question, researchers from Leiden are working with the Gedeeld Verleden, Gezamenlijke Toekomst foundation on public programmes about the Dutch history of slavery.

When Professor Cátia Antunes received an NWO VICI grant in 2020 for research into the economic benefits Dutch companies gained from colonialism, it was clear from the outset that knowledge about this colonial past should not be restricted to the academic world. Antunes therefore looked for a social partner to share the results with a wider audience. She found this partner in the Rotterdam foundation Gedeeld Verleden, Gezamenlijke Toekomst (GVGT), which aims to raise awareness about the colonial past among the citizens of Rotterdam.

GVGT has launched the History Matters project, in which Rotterdam’s history of slavery and colonialism is translated into teaching materials for secondary schools and higher professional education and programmes for the general public. Rotterdam residents can take part in a special version of the College Tour where they discuss such themes as slavery and racism, and visit a film programme featuring films about colonialism. A reader with texts has also been compiled for those who wants to delve deeper into the subject.


One day a week, postdoc Gijs Dreijer acts as a link between the university and the project as well as working as an editor. ‘As a scientist myself, I sometimes find that difficult. If someone tries to summarise an issue but cuts corners, I feel the urge to step in, but that also forces me to think critically about what information is really necessary for the programme. As a scientist, you’re trained to focus on the historiographical side of the debate, but it can be good to move away from that viewpoint and create an easy-to-follow story of a perspective that was previously overlooked.’

It can be good to move away from the historiographical side of the debate.

The GVGT is also happy with Dreijer's input. ‘In November 2020, the municipality of Rotterdam had just completed a major investigation into the city’s colonial and slavery history, but they were still not sure how to use the data to its full potential,’ explains Wim Reijnierse, programmer at GVGT. ‘So we asked History Matters to present the results in the best way for the people of Rotterdam. That calls for a major shift in how you interpret the material, so it’s a great help to be working with people who are familiar with the scientific side of things.’

Proud of diversity

The fact that scientists from Leiden can also be found in Rotterdam now is an added bonus, according to Dreijer and Reijnierse. ‘I haven’t exactly counted heads, but Rotterdam really has only one historian who is fully engaged with the colonial past,’ says Reijnierse. ‘There are a lot more in Leiden. It’s an amazing opportunity for our foundation that Cátia’s programme has evolved in this direction.’ In turn, Dreijer is full of admiration for the commitment of the people of Rotterdam. Rotterdam has by far the largest number of organisations that are working on the legacy of the Dutch colonial past. ‘That’s what makes this such an incredibly worthwhile partnership. And not only that, I also get the sense that the people of Rotterdam are very proud of the diversity in their city.’

Photo: Nicky Angelina Visuals

Meer informatie over het project is beschikbaar op www.historymatters010.nl.

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