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Eighteenth Century Dutch slaves in Morocco already had orientalist views

The idea that prejudices about the (Middle)-East came to be during the colonisation of North-Africa in the 19th century is false. Mounir el-Badri wrote a cum laude bachelor thesis about orientalist judgments with which 18th century slaves in Morocco much earlier characterised their captors with.

Orientalism in the Eighteenth Century

The concept of orientalism covers negative stereotypical beliefs and stories from the ‘West’ about the people who live in the (Middle)-East. When imperialism started during the 19th century and European countries began to colonise North-Africa, there existed many orientalist views about the people who lived in these countries. According to these notions the people were greedy, gluttonous and lazy.

But Mounir found that already in the 18th century North-African people were depicted in a similar way. For his thesis he dived into five accounts of Dutch slaves who were enslaved by Moorish people (North African Muslims) in Morocco. These Dutch slaves published their stories when they returned to the Netherlands. Many elements in these stories, like the idea that North-African people were supposed to be greedy, were similar to later narratives that were believed by people from European colonising countries.

Underexposed slavery

Mounir got fascinated by the lesser known slavery between Europeans and North-African. These groups enslaved each other back and forth through the 18th century. ‘This part of history is underexposed and that got my attention’, Mounir says. ‘The accounts of the Dutch slaves are full of interesting things about themselves, but also about the Moroccans, whom they described.’

He connected these stories to orientalism; a concept that, since it was formulated in 1978 by literary scientist Edward Said, is becoming even more relevant. The emerging tensions between Europe and North-Africa due to the refugee crisis, jihadism and migration for economic reasons, causes appearance of negative frames about the ‘other’. ‘It produced a researched that is very compelling and lively due to the (underexposed) stories, while the orientalist aspect offers an historic perspective on contemporary social-cultural phenomena.’

Surviving views

To be able to research this, Mounir located the writings of the Dutch slaves. He read these sources in their original language: Eightteenth Century Dutch. He formulated and defined the concept of orientalism, which made it easier to use in the analysis of the texts. ‘The “orientalist dimension” in the stories emerged clearly this way’, Mounir claims.

About the conclusion of his research Mounir says: ‘I already did not believe that the ideas and denominations, that colonists in the Nineteenth Century used and believed in, came out of thin air.’ Presumably the slave-captor relationship caused these ideas to surface faster. Partly it can explain why the stereotypical judgments of the Dutch people where so explicit. ‘The fact these views were so negative, stereotypical and shared, suggests a more fundamental phenomena’, Mounir concludes. ‘There has to have been a shared European “cultural archive” for the description of Moroccans/Moorish people.

Lieke Bakker
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In the course The History of Morocco the contact between Morocco and the Netherlands is covered through lectures of guest speakers from various disciplines. Nadia Bouras, who is lecturer in this class, says: ‘In this programme we also cover the fates of Dutch slaves in Moroccan captivity. This course offers students enough starting points for a historically interesting thesis, like that of Mounir.’

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