Universiteit Leiden

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Leiden University to study historical links to slavery and colonialism

The Executive Board is launching a one-year preliminary study conducted by a postdoc into Leiden University’s past ties with slavery and colonialism. We interviewed President of the Executive Board Annetje Ottow about this decision.

Why is this preliminary study being conducted?

‘Leiden University stands for openness and transparency, equality, freedom and responsibility. Given these core values, we think it necessary to gain a better understanding of our role in global slavery and colonialism in the past. As a research and teaching institution, we have an important role and responsibility to promote knowledge and critical reflection on this history and our role in it. There needs to be room for the experiences and perspectives of those who are still confronted with the legacy of this history every single day as well as for critical self-reflection and candour in those whom this history has benefitted.’

What is already known about Leiden University’s historical links to slavery and colonialism?

‘There are various examples of students and academics who went on to play a role in colonial history. Alumnus Johannes de Laet (1581-1649), for example, was involved in the foundation of the Dutch West India Company. And during the colonial period Leiden academics took plants, animals and manuscripts from colonised regions and brought them to the Leiden collections. Various disciplines contributed to the training of colonial civil servants and governors, and people from colonised regions in Asia and the Atlantic world also found their way to the university. One important example is Jacobus Capitein (1717-1747), who was enslaved in Ghana and later studied theology in Leiden.

‘Slavery and colonialism were also the subject of dissertations in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Examples like these raise the question of what our institution’s attitude was towards this system of subjection. This preliminary study will hopefully provide some clarity.’

What shape will the preliminary study take?

‘The study will identify sources, archives and existing research on the university’s historical links with slavery and colonialism. It will also look at pointers for possible follow-up research. A preliminary study will also run in parallel at the Municipality of Leiden about the city of Leiden’s historical links to slavery and colonialism, which means that any common ground between the city and the university will be brought to light. The university’s preliminary study will be carried out by a postdoc researcher (1 FTE). The vacancy will appear on the university’s job opportunities page soon. In addition, the municipality will fund a junior researcher who will conduct the research into the city of Leiden. They will be supervised and advised by experts from within and outside the university. The research assignment will be concretised by an expert group with internal and external members. The group will make recommendations for possible follow-up research on the basis of the research results.’

Are there other ways in which the university is focusing on slavery and colonialism?

‘This year is Slavery Memorial Year, a year in which we are celebrating that slavery was abolished 160 years ago and actually ended in the Kingdom of the Netherlands 150 years ago. In this context we are organising various activities aimed at promoting more knowledge and dialogue on this topic. There will be two public evenings about the university’s historical ties to slavery, and together with the Municipality of Leiden we are organising a Keti Koti table where students, staff, administrators and residents of the municipality can discuss their personal experiences and the legacy of slavery in today’s society. In collaboration with Museum De Lakenhal, an exhibition is being prepared on Anton de Kom and the Surinamese Student Union (SSU) in Leiden. A series of portraits of students and staff will also be produced, reflecting on what slavery and colonialism mean to them.’

What are your reflections on the Netherlands’ ties to slavery and colonialism?

‘I think it is really important to reflect together on this history. That is why my family donated a large collection to the university last year, which focuses on my family’s colonial history. This relates to colonial administrators and Indonesian ancestors. I used to take this family history for granted but now struggle with it. We have to be able to have an open conversation about this and learn how to confront the legacy of this period. I would therefore call on everyone to take part in all the activities and to find out more about our shared history of slavery and colonialism.’

Text: Sabine Waasdorp

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