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‘The university has many roots in the colonial past. How deep and wide were they?’

Historians recently started preliminary research on Leiden University’s role in colonialism and historical slavery. Our knowledge about this is too limited and fragmented. They are looking with fresh eyes at Leiden’s archives and collections. An interview with historians Alicia Schrikker and Ligia Giay.

What financial interests did administrators and academics have in plantations?

A course that prepared civil servants for their work in the former Dutch colonies or an 18th-century dissertation that reconciled slavery with Christianity. We know that Leiden University played a variety of roles in this uneasy history, say both historians. But it is high time for systematic research. ‘There are still many blind spots’, says Alicia Schrikker, Director of Research at the Institute for History.

In their office at the faculty, they talk about the approach they are taking. ‘This preliminary research will take a year and we will make recommendations for follow-up research’, says postdoc Ligia Giay. She comes from Papua, Indonesia and started working in Leiden on 1 December 2023. She has written various publications about slavery and colonial rule in Indonesia. She reads and speaks good Dutch, partly because of the Master’s in Colonial and Global History that she did in Leiden. She took the Cosmopolis programme with an intensive course in the Dutch language and archiving and knows her way around old archives.

Alicia Schrikker

Also research on the role of the city

Schrikker is the chair of a wide group of experts (see below) who are supervising the studies. The university’s research into colonialism and historical slavery is funded by the Executive Board. Alongside Giay, two junior researchers have been appointed: Emma Sow and Sjoerd Ramackers. Sow will research the role of the city of Leiden, under the supervision of historian Ariadne Schmidt and the same expert group. This research into the city’s past is funded by the Municipality of Leiden. Ramackers’ research is more at the intersection between the city and the university because, in the early-modern period in particular, the world of university and city administrators was often interlinked with that of merchants.

Proceeds of slavery

‘The university has many roots in the colonial past’, says Schrikker. ‘We already knew that but what we don’t know is how deep and wide these roots are. This year we will map out what is already known, which questions have not yet been answered and which new questions we still need to ask.’ She gives some examples: to what extent was the university funded by the proceeds of slavery and what financial interests did some administrators and academics have in plantations?

The preliminary research focuses on four themes:

  • Networks: the links between academics and colonies

  • Links between the university and the colonial government and policy

  • Collection building and heritage

  • Dealing with colonial culture and knowledge after independence

Ligia Giay

Preparation for work in the colonies

Another important research theme is training and knowledge transfer (see below). ‘The university trained civil servants for work in the colonies’, says Giay. ‘I’m really curious about the specific knowledge they gave to civil servants. We are also making an inventory of which publications appeared over the centuries about slavery and colonialism. Because some of them were in direct service of this, like dissertations about legal issues in the former Dutch East Indies.’

‘Here at the university opinions arose and were defended about how to deal with people who have another skin colour and live in another society’, says Schrikker. ‘The moral and ethical aspects of this were also conceived and defended here. Many disciplines have colonial roots. Alongside law, this is true for history, for example, as well as archaeology, biology, anthropology and medicine because physicians also conducted research in Suriname, the Caribbean or the Dutch East Indies. So yes, in a way, research on our colonial past is also daunting or at least confronting for many disciplines.’

Provenance of collections

Giay will inventory which university collections have a colonial past. University Libraries Leiden (UBL), for instance, has a kilometres-long Asian collection with tens of thousands of special manuscripts, maps, prints and photos that is based in part on the KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies collection. The KITLV is now researching together with UBL under what conditions the collections came about. This research is led by Marieke Bloembergen, Professor of Heritage and Postcolonial Studies. ‘Restitution is not the topic of this preliminary study’, says Schrikker. ‘But the results or insights from our research may contribute to the debate. And that can only be a good thing. We have to consider this together.’

‘We look at history through different eyes nowadays and this means we see some things differently or more sharply now.’

Traces in the university archives

The historians will also make an inventory of what the university archive has to say about the colonial past. ‘Such a large archive is almost intimidating and that is why we have to make good choices about which avenues to pursue this year’, says Giay.

They are also using the comprehensive works of university historian Willem Otterspeer as a source. ‘Otterspeer has written fantastic important books about the university’s past but the relationship with the colonial past was not a big theme. Nowadays we look through different eyes at history and we therefore see things differently now and more critically’, says Schrikker.

Calling on other researchers

Both historians appreciate that an overarching study of these centuries-old links is a tremendous challenge. ‘I want to take this opportunity to call on researchers and staff from all faculties to contact me if you see common ground with your research and findings in this field. This can be about anything of course: from information about a certain collection of an 18th-century administrator who had a plantation. Then we can reconstruct the history together.’

The members of the expert group

  • Alicia Schrikker, historian of colonial history

  • Ariadne Schmidt, professor of Leiden city history

  • Pieter Slaman, university historian

  • Kurt de Belder, UBL director

  • Esther Captain, historian of postcolonial Netherlands, KITLV

  • Guno Jones, Anton de Kom chair professor (VU)

  • Nancy Jouwe, cultural historian and independent researcher

  • Ariela Netiv, director of Heritage Leiden

Text: Linda van Putten
Photos: Rob Dorresteijn

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