Universiteit Leiden

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Abolition of slavery Memorial Year has begun

2023 is an important year for Leiden University, our students and staff, and for the Netherlands in general. On 1 July – Keti Koti – it will be exactly 160 years since slavery was officially abolished in Suriname and the Caribbean part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and 150 years since forced labour ended in Suriname. In the year ahead, our university community will be able to reflect extensively on the history of slavery by engaging in research, education and many other activities.

For example, there will be two public evenings about the university’s historical links to slavery, and together with the Municipality of Leiden we are organising a Keti Koti Table, where discussions will take place between staff, students, administrators and residents of Leiden. The university is also joining with Museum De Lakenhal to present an exhibition on the writer, activist and resistance fighter Anton de Kom and Leiden University’s Surinamese Student Union. The University Library (UBL) will offer a wide range of activities, including a reading list, podcasts and book salons, to facilitate in-depth study of this subject.

Wealth of expertise

The university has a wealth of expertise on the Netherlands’ history of colonialism and slavery. For example, researcher Karwan Fatah-Black recently published research results on the historical connections between the province of South Holland and slavery. Together with Gert Oostindie, Fatah-Black also wrote the booklet Sporen van het Slavernijverleden in Leiden (‘traces of the history of slavery in Leiden’), which outlines the relationship between the history of slavery, the city and the university. This knowledge can also be followed in the form of a walking tour. Questions that are addressed include: how did our academic community engage with a system that robbed people of their freedom? What role did our education play in colonialism and slavery? And what was the role of our students, scholars and administrators in this history?

Slavery and other forms of forced labour also existed in Asian and Indian Ocean territories under Dutch rule in the 17th-20th centuries. This includes present day Indonesia, South Africa and Sri Lanka. In the last two cases Dutch colonial slavery was abolished in 1834 and 1844, decades after the Dutch were ousted by the British. The research of the Leiden University scholars Alicia Schrikker and Nira Wickramasinghe provides important insights into this, and the master’s programme Colonial and Global History offers our students the opportunity to study this history in greater depth.

Consequences for society today

At the institutional level, the influence of the colonial period is reflected in the development of some of our study programmes, such as regional studies, anthropology, public administration and archaeology, and in collections of manuscripts and objects. At the individual level, there is a need for reflection on the assumptions, expectations and unconscious prejudices that still today can affect the way we see and treat one another. The Memorial Year is an important opportunity to not only gain knowledge about the history of slavery and the experiences of enslaved persons, but also to initiate open discussion of their aftermath.

Scrutinising our own past

The Executive Board of the university feels that the time has come to scrutinise our own role in the Netherlands’ history of colonialism and slavery. Earlier this year it was announced that the Board has commissioned a preliminary study of the part played by the university and its students and staff in this history. ‘As a research and teaching institution, we have a responsibility to promote knowledge and critical reflection on this history and our own role in it,’ said Annetje Ottow, President of the Executive Board, in a recent interview. The possibility of further research studies will be discussed on the basis of the results of this preliminary study.

Next steps

The university therefore wants to look critically at both its own past and present. In terms of the present, we might think of ways to uncover and combat ideas and behaviours that could result in exclusion. We take very seriously possible cases of exclusion in the learning and working environment based on appearance or cultural or ethnic background. The university community still has more steps to take in achieving a safe, diverse and inclusive learning and working environment, giving space for all members of that community to be themselves. The Memorial Year offers the opportunity to take the next steps, so that these aspirations lead to real results.

Illustration: Zenzy Blindeling

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