Students involved in research

UU delves into the history of slavery 160 years after abolition

Slavernij Utrecht Foto: Het Utrechts Archief
UU is going to research how the university was involved with slavery and colonialism in the past. For several decades, Utrecht had an Indological faculty with close ties to large Dutch companies. Photo: The Utrecht Archives

“There’s work to be done.” That was the conclusion of a committee that advised UU's Executive Board earlier this year.

The members of the Executive Board asked this committee, led by Distinguished Professor James Kennedy, to tell them how the university should respond to research on the history of slavery in Utrecht. Said study showed that Utrecht University, as well as individual professors, actually benefited from slavery.

The report was enough to make the municipality offer an official apology but, for UU, an apology would be a step too far, according to the committee. In the university's view, first one needs to conduct additional research into the university's buildings at Drift and Janskerkhof, in the city centre, which were built or embellished with income from slavery. This research could also focus on the financial ties between UU and commercial slavery.

Collective memory
The committee stated that UU should “acknowledge that the trade and exploitation of enslaved people had consequences that some people profited off of, and others suffered from”. The studies also aim to make sure that this knowledge becomes part of the “collective memory” of the UU community. The colonial past of the Dutch in Indonesia is another important aspect to be looked into.

The Executive Board acknowledged the importance of additional research and encouraging the debate on the meaning of this past for the university, but it was not interested in a university-led research project by a number of historians. “This should be all of ours,” they said. For this reason, the rector announced in a meeting with the University Council that he would ask faculty deans for research proposals.

And so we come to 2023, the year that marks the 160th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands. A large group of students and employees will be working on that past, as well as UU’s present.

A round of questions from DUB shows that the rector is faced with a broad offer of initiatives: students are writing theses, PhD projects are being set up, and discussions will take place.

Joining forces
The UU scientists involved in the numerous research projects are glad that these knowledge gaps will be filled. They also note that both students and employees seem to be very interested in the topic.

Social geographer Michiel van Meeteren has been asked about the tight bonds with the mining companies and oil corporations that were active in the colonies. “You can tell students are thinking 'what happened there and what should we do about it now?'”

At the same time, there are concerns about the lack of cohesion that characterises the approach thus far. Especially because the advice to the Executive Board stresses the need for a better overview.

Historian Remco Raben, who’s involved with the municipality's research on the city's history of slavery and is also a member of the work group that advised the Executive Board: “It seems as though a little more coordination is needed.”

Raben himself is now thinking of a multidisciplinary project in which Master’s students will take a look at numerous academic disciplines. “We have to join forces.”

Science historian David Baneke, who’s working with a work group to study how the Faculty of Science should uncover its colonial past, also states he wishes there was more interaction with other faculties.

“There are quite a number of cross-connections. The university had an Indological faculty for several decades, to give you an example. That faculty housed a number of disciplines, so we want to know what’s going to happen at other places at UU.”

Lack of diversity in the student body
It’s usually hard to engage descendants of enslaved people or people in research. The same goes for people whose background connects them to slavery. But it is important to do so because one of the university's goals is to use the knowledge gathered to start a conversation at the university.

That’s where the lack of a diverse student population becomes tangible, according to Remco Raben. “We’re still a white university. Dealing with the history of slavery is intrinsically connected to the issues of diversity — or lack thereof.”

Asked to comment on DUB's inquiry, UU's Rector Henk Kummeling says he is glad to see how excited faculties are about researching this topic. He would also like to establish a steering committee to coordinate the various initiatives and check whether certain aspects of UU's past are not being underexposed.


DUB asked around to find out what different departments are doing in this regard. The following overview is possibly incomplete.

The Faculty of Science is launching a work group early next year, with proposals for further research on the connection of UU's science disciplines to the colonial past of the Netherlands.

The work group will be supervised by David Baneke and Robert Jan Wille. Both of them work for the Freudenthal Institute and are connected to the Master’s programme in History and Philosophy of Science, whose students are going to join the work group.

“We’re making an inventory now,” Baneke explains “What are the main topics? What has been studied already? What should we study further? Who are the main actors? What sources can we use?”

They will not only look at slavery but the colonial past as well, as recommended by the advisory committee. The faculty will use the year 1815 as a starting point; that's when UU first got its independent Faculty of Maths and Physics.

Baneke: “It's clear that there are connections and that the sciences – in agriculture, in chemistry, in pharmacy, to name but a few. There’s also quite some knowledge about botanical research in Buitenzorg, modern-day Bogor. But there are plenty of topics that could use some more attention. There’s less knowledge about Surinam and 'the West', for instance. Or about education. How were students in our educational system prepared for a career in colonialism?”

It's unknown what form the faculty’s research will have as of yet, but students are sure to be involved – preferably from different backgrounds. “You can tell students are very interested.”

In February, five to ten students at the Faculty of Humanities will start a course called "Slavery and Utrecht University", to be ministered by the Historian Remco Raben, who’s also a member of James Kennedy’s advisory committee.

The course will use Community Engaged Learning (CLE), an educational method that has students collaborating with people or organisations outside the university on societal issues.

Raben: “The students who participate in this course will work with other students and UU employees to think about what the legacies of slavery and slavery-based colonialism are for the faculty. But you can’t answer a question like that without taking the insights and the needs of the communities involved into consideration. These communities are outside the walls of the university, so students will have to be out and about.”

The historian stresses that CLE demands students to come up with their own research and teaching, so he can't make any clear predictions on what will happen. “But you can imagine that we’ll look at the building we’re working and studying in. Almost all of them were once owned by people who became wealthy through colonial positions and businesses and current students walk around in those buildings every day.”

Aside from the knowledge aspect (“what do we already know?”), students could also tackle two important follow-up questions, explains Raben. "How can we make the users of these buildings aware of that past?" and "How can we let students and employees think about inclusion in the current faculty?"

“One option is to place a work of art at the entrance of the city centre library to instantly remind students of the colonial history of the building. Another idea is to organise meetings around Keti Koti, the annual commemoration of the formal abolition of slavery on July 1.”


At the Faculty of Geosciences, it’s likely that a PhD candidate will already start in January. Social geographer Michiel van Meeteren is one of the three supervisors. “We know the faculty has a past to confront. Some of our disciplines are pretty much built on knowledge gained in the colonies. But how that happened exactly and what was the exact contribution of UU scientists to the colonial order, that's something that has never been systematically studied. So, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Van Meeteren implicitly refers to the close ties between UU's scientists and companies in the oil and mining businesses (Shell in particular). These ties were evidenced by the so-called "Oil Faculty", which used to exist at UU and had the warm support of corporations between 1925 and 1950. At the geographic institute founded in 1908, numerous professors came from the colonial military and civilian elite.

Van Meeteren says the PhD candidate will do more than just historical archive research. They will also study the extent to which colonial knowledge, relations, methods, and networks still matter today and in what way they have influenced new generations of local scientists. Lastly, they intend to use the findings to ignite a faculty-wide debate about the impact of colonialism on the Faculty of Geosciences today.

Van Meeteren: “We’ve realised there are so many questions about this, especially from students. What was our role? How should we look at this? This study is not only scientifically interesting but it’s also really relevant to society.”

The faculty is in a luxury position when it comes to finding a PhD candidate for the job. "The number of responses was remarkably high and we have amazing candidates, including several people who are experienced in the subject matter.”


At the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance, it's easy to see how interested students are in research on slavery and the role of Utrecht University ever since Dean Janneke Plantenga informed them they had the option of investigating this topic. No less than twenty students signed up in just a few days.

They started working after an initial meeting. Some of them will be writing Bachelor's theses about apologies and compensation offers. A total of four gatherings are planned so that the students and their supervisors can visit the library's special collection. 

But the faculty wants to do much more. Last week, they organised a discussion about how the history of slavery should become part of education, research, and other activities carried out by the faculty. Roline Redmond, a UU graduate and writer, gave a lecture about her book De Doorsons, in which she investigates the history of slavery in her own family. Furthermore, the faculty intends to present its plans and activities in the next Law Summer Festival, to be held in June.


Dean's Dinner Foto: Bas Schreiner

A meeting between the deans and the writer Roline Redmond at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. Photo: Bas Schreiner

At the Faculty of Medicine, Dean Arno Hoes will soon talk to Distinguished Professor James Kennedy, the president of the committee that advised UU about how to deal with its history of slavery. The intention is to hire a researcher or PhD candidate who will bring the colonial past of UU's doctors into focus. How this will be done and what the exact research topic will be, is not yet known.

The board of the Faculty of Social Sciences presented a memo to the faculty council about how it intends to respond to the rector’s request. According to board members, the problem is that the faculty did not exist until 1963 but there has been research in and with former Dutch colonies since then.

The board proposes a discussion evening with the former board secretary and former driving force of UU's internationalisation programme, Henk van Rinsum. He has repeatedly pointed out (including in an op-ed on DUB and a lecture at the Faculty Club) that there are clear connections between the history of slavery and colonialism and more recent collaborations with researchers and universities in former colonies. In his view, we need more knowledge and more awareness.

The memo states: “The faculty board acknowledges that the nature of such a discussion is a little farther removed from the recommendation (…) to ‘give an account of our history of slavery’ but hopes to use the report in this way to bring more attention to the role of the Faculty of Social Sciences.”

At the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, the Veterinary Historical Society, led by Emeritus Professor Peter Koolmees, has come up with an overview of the professors, locations and expeditions that can be tied to the faculty’s history of colonialism and slavery. Based on this inventory, the faculty will decide next year which steps will be taken next. 

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