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Balthasar Coymans by Frans Hals
Balthasar Coymans ~ Wiki Commons

Exploiting the Empires of Others: Vici grant for Cátia Antunes

Having mostly ignored the gains Dutch traders, investors and firms attained from serving the French, English and Iberian empires, debate in the Netherlands now demands a re-evaluation of Dutch colonial responsibilities. By recovering knowledge of these gains, this project will measure the wealth obtained from exploiting the empire of others. For this research project Professor of History of Global Economic Networks Cátia Antunes received an NWO Vici grant.

On how the Dutch used the international colonial landscape

This project questions the who and why Dutch entrepreneurs (private firms) participated in exploiting the English, French and Iberian empires, as Dutch firms are particularly prominent in the European colonial landscape. Since Dutch entrepreneurs engaged in exploiting the resources of those other countries, what is the future of the public debate in the Netherlands, and Europe at large, regarding a shared responsibility for the colonial past?

Answering the central question of this project will compare and nuance, but mostly contrast knowledge about Dutch colonial participation and the relevance of Dutch firms and entrepreneurial behavior on a global scale (1550-1840). By showcasing the complex intertwining of Dutch private goals and the public, colonial and political aims of the various European countries, I propose a subversion of the premises of discussion prevalent in the academic and public debate in the Netherlands regarding the material and immaterial responsibility of Dutch state and society in matters related to the colonial past, as I propose that there was a European culture of colonial exploitation in which the Dutch state and Dutch private firms participated, being however only part of a much larger phenomenon. This European culture of colonial exploitation, not specific nor extraordinary when viewed from the Dutch perspective, carry direct consequences for (contemporary) postcolonial societies in Europe and worldwide.

Towards an international model of colonial exploitation

The subject very few academics and politicians like to discuss when thinking of the consequences of the colonial past is the role postcolonial states (being the old states in Europe or the new national states that framed the new independent ex-colonies) played in placing most of the responsibility for inequality, exclusion and racism in events rooted in the Early Modern period (before 1800) and within a specific national sphere. What this project will bring about is the opening of a discussion about an international (European) model of colonial exploitation that had its roots in Early Modern Europe, but accelerated, multiplied and globalized in the modern period. The strength of the combination of capitalist enterprise and state building did not, however, stop upon the moment of independence of the ex-colonies. As some (few) academics have stated, capitalist enterprise in a postcolonial setting endured, and still remains, as one significant source of difference, exclusion (social, racial, gender) and inequality.

Internationally joint synergies

This project shares quite a few academic synergies with current work being developed in Leiden (Institute for History within Cities, Migration and Global Interconnections and Colonial and Global), at the KITLV under the leadership of Professor Gert Oostindie and the excellent research clusters on labor, slavery and exclusion vested at the International Institute of Social History (Dr Matthias van Rossum, Dr Pepijn Brandon and Prof Ulbe Bosma) and at the Africa Study Centre under the leadership of Prof. Gewald. Internationally, this project is embedded in an informal network that privileges the discussion of colonial, imperial and postcolonial discussions on earnings and consequences of empire. At different moments, this network was pivotal in inspiring the development of this project. The Center for Global History (University of Oxford), the University of Seville Pablo Olavide, CIDEHUS – University of Évora, King’s College London, EHESS-Paris, the history cluster working at the Business School, University of Manchester and the University of Lancaster, and the European University Institute (Florence). In terms of societal partners, this project will continue my personal collaboration with the Stichting Gedeeld Verleden Gezamelijk Toekomst (Rotterdam) and with the group campaigning for Coimbra as European Capital of Culture in 2027. Jointly, they will become the vehicles of communication of results to the larger public, whilst offering multiple opportunities for traineeships for university and non-university (HBO and MBO) graduates.

Research and teaching firmly intertwined

The framing of this project has been a matter of discussion in the last four years with MA-level students. I was privileged to share my ideas, questions and doubts with MA History students in the course Business of Empire. The weekly discussions, personal feedback and research helped greatly in developing this project. I am extraordinarily grateful for their generosity and in that sense, I do not see how research can ever be disconnected from teaching.

In order to keep this close connection with teaching, this project will hire, yearly, one MA student whose research interests fall within the framework of this project. During that year, the student may share the common data collection and develop his/her research in a professional environment. I expect that some of the candidates will be among the top ranking students of the course Business of Empire, which I will remain teaching for the duration of the project, among other courses at BA level that will also partially reflect the core interests of the current project.

A word of thanks

The process of writing a project of this nature is a lonely task. However, creating, framing and developing is the result of multiple consultations and feedback moments that are often generously shared with students, team members and fellow colleagues that tend to go on and beyond the call of duty in terms of time and support. The list is long and it would be difficult to name everyone, but I am particularly thankful to the Early Modernists at the Institute for History (Judith Pollman, Jeroen Duindam, Manon van der Heijden), the section Economic and Social History (particularly the Brown Bag Seminar), Matthias van Rossum (IISG Amsterdam), Francisco Bethencourt (King’s College London) and James Belich (University of Oxford). And last but not least, I would like to thank the colleagues of the profiling area of Global Interactions (LGI).

Grants from NWO

Cátia Antunes, Professor of History of Global Economic Networks, is one of three Leiden researchers this round to have received a Vici grant of 1.5m euros.

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) encourages quality and innovation in science by selecting and funding the best research. One of the tools used to do this is the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme, which provides talented and creative researchers with personal funding. The programme consists of the Veni, for those who have recently received their PhD; the Vidi, for those who have been conducting research for a number of years since obtaining their doctorate; and the Vici, for experienced researchers who have demonstrated the ability to develop their own line of research.

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