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From textiles to teaching: Leiden’s role in colonialism and slavery

Using enslaved people as servants, becoming an administrator in the Dutch West India Company or making uniforms for the colonial army. In their own way, many people from Leiden played a role in colonialism and slavery. Historians are conducting preliminary research and finding striking examples.

‘We find an interesting trail in the archives that deserves further research almost every day’, says historian Sjoerd Ramackers looking back on the first months of the year-long preliminary investigation. His research is at the point where city and university meet. Historian Emma Sow is principally researching the role of the city of Leiden. Professor Ariadne Schmidt is one of the two research leaders, see below.

The preliminary research began at the end of 2023. Alongside the researchers above, the team includes historian Ligia Giay, who is researching the university’s role, and research leader Alicia Schrikker. Read more about their approach in The university has many roots in the colonial past. How deep and wide were they? An expert group is advising the team.

Trail in the batism records

In the baptism records of Leiden’s Vrouwekerk church, Ramackers recently researched the story of an enslaved woman from Suriname who was a servant in Leiden. Her birth name is not known. The baptismal records consistently refer to her as ‘La Négresse’. The records show that she was not allowed to be publicly baptised in the church. At her baptism in 1768, she was given the name Susanna van Cormantin. Her surname referred to the part of present-day Ghana where the Dutch West India Company (WIC) owned a fort where enslaved people were traded. Ramackers also found Susanna van Cormantin’s will in the city archives. This states that she would leave her modest possessions to her Leiden mistress and had one last wish: that her sister Hester, who was still forced to work on a Surinamese plantation, be freed. ‘We don’t know if that happened’, he says.

Emma Sow

City and university

This is just one of many stories that the historians have uncovered. In archives such as those of Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken, the archive of the city and surrounding area, they are researching which institutions had direct and indirect ties to colonies or can be linked to slavery. They recently published their initial findings in a weblog (in Dutch). ‘Leiden was not a real port city but the city and its people did play a part in colonialism and slavery’, says Sow. ‘Gert Oostindie and Karwan Fatah-Black’s guide  Sporen van de slavernij in Leiden (2017) offers various pointers that we are now exploring.’

‘This preliminary research is already showing us that in their involvement in colonialism and slavery the city and university were inextricably linked’, Schmidt adds. ‘There is information but it is extremely fragmented. We are now identifying lines that merit further investigation.’

‘The strange thing is that there is much to be found in the archives but not much in the way of research has been conducted on it thus far’, says Ramackers.

‘When you look through the right glasses and you find a great deal’, says Schmidt.

Ariadne Schmidt

Conversations with the people of Leiden

The historians are also talking to the city’s people to see how they view this past. These conversations are at various places such as community centres and museums. ‘This project is definitely not just a university project’, Sow explains. ‘We want to involve a wide range of people from Leiden and have spoken to people who definitely view this past from a contemporary social perspective, such as Janice Deul and Jacintha Groen, who organise the annual Keti Koti commemoration.’

They have also spoken to historians from outside the university, such as Cor Smit and Peter de Leeuw, and museum curators. And they will talk to people from Leiden who feel the topic does not really affect them. 

Personal quest

The reactions are very different, says the team. ‘I’ve noticed how people from Leiden with a Surinamese background, for example, are often on a personal quest to find their community’, says Ramackers. ‘The Afro-Dutch community in Leiden is relatively small compared with big cities. These people often want to know: to what extent were people of colour here in the past and what opportunities did they have?’

‘For people from a migrant background colonialism and slavery is generally a wider social issue’, Schmidt adds. ‘They want an answer to the question: is Leiden’s history also my history? And everyone thinks it important to consider how the past affects the present. Other people from the city are also becoming more curious about this past as they hear about the roles of their fellow townspeople at the time.’

Sjoerd Ramackers

Colonial administrators

Leiden’s civic administration provided governors for the WIC and the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Founded in 1621, the WIC purchased enslaved people in West Africa and transported an estimated 300,000 of them to North and South America. Leiden invested so much in this company that it earned the opportunity to provide two governors for the first 20 years. These city officials were contacts for merchants wishing to do business with the WIC.

Civil servant training

Sow points to the ‘Gemeentelijke instelling tot opleiding van Oost-Indische ambtenaren’, an institution that, between 1877 and 1891, trained civil servants who were to be sent to the Dutch East Indies. She read in Leiden municipal council acts how the city wanted to be the one to offer this training. In 1902, a university programme was established to train such civil servants for their work in the colonies.

From coffee to paint

The historians are not only researching the role of the university and the civic administration. ‘People often associate this research with the role of mayors, scholars and merchants’, says Schmidt. ‘But we are also curious about “regular” Leiden townsfolk like bakers and vendors. Colonial products such as coffee and tea, for example, created a lot of employment because people started selling these products in the street. There was even a link to the art world: Leiden painters snapped up dyes imported from colonised areas and tended to paint people of colour in a submissive role, says Ramackers.

Role of the cloth industry

The Leiden cloth industry also had a part to play. The textile industry imported dyes too and traded cloth with the colonies. Sow gives another striking example, ‘Hundreds of textile workers could earn pin money from 1839 to 1905 making uniforms and garments for the colonial army in the Dutch East Indies, Suriname and Curaçao.’

‘Leiden’s identity − as a city of education and home to the cloth industry − proved most decisive for its involvement in colonialism and slavery’, says Schmidt. We will complete the preliminary research in October this year and will definitely make recommendations for further research.’

Text: Linda van Putten
Photos: Danique ter Horst

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