Utrecht was knee-deep in slavery

Many buildings on the Drift and Janskerkhof were built with colonial money. Photo: DUB archive

Following in the footsteps of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the city of Utrecht has commissioned a study about its involvement with slavery in the past. Conducted by Nancy Jouwe, Remco Raben, and Matthijs Kuipers, the study resulted in a book titled Slavery and the City of Utrecht. The book was officially launched on June 30, the day before Keti Koti (the holiday celebrating the end of slavery). The three researchers are connected to the Faculty of Humanities. Students also worked on the research.

“For the first time in the history of Utrecht, we have managed to map its slavery past systematically, through archive research," explains Remco Raben in an article published (only in Dutch) on the news site of the Faculty of Humanities.

Students were tasked with counting the number of mayors and members of the city's council in the 17th and 18th century, looking at the direct and indirect colonial interests of these civil servants. “More than forty percent of administrators had interests in the colonies at a certain point in time, and they were all based on slavery, including the ones in the east,” says Raben. “Many residents of Utrecht were very much into slavery through their investments and careers, or through positions in the council.”

An example given in the book is that of Hendrick van Asch van Wijck (1707-1785), a plantation owner who served as mayor and director of the West Indian Company (WIC), the trade company that transported huge amounts of enslaved people from Africa to South America.

Academic education
The study also takes a look at Utrecht University. On the one hand, the university was a cradle of leaders of the East-India Trading Company (VOC) and their children. Many of them returned to Utrecht later on to serve in the municipality, using colonial funds. Researchers working at UU dealt with slavery, too. Rector and legal expert Christiaan Hendrik Trotz, for instance, was the co-owner of half a sugar plantation. On the other hand, there was also Jan Ackersdijck, a professor of governance pushing to abolish slavery. In 1840, he was co-initiator of a manifest opposing slavery.

The research also mentions Belle van Zuylen, an author who attended classes at Utrecht University, and after whom the Belle van Zuylen hall in the University Hall is named. On the Humanities website, Nancy Jouwe elaborates: “Belle is the pride of Utrecht. In our book, we explain that she was able to live a comfortable life as an author thanks to large colonial investments. Her family and herself were in deep.”

UU buildings
Science has also benefited from the colonial period when it comes to the content of research. Raben says “there is not a single discipline at the university that didn’t benefit one way or another from knowledge or even money coming from the colonies. Medical science, anthropology, history... Actually, all of our academia is strongly rooted in colonial practice. We’ll continue to do research on that.”

The university's buildings in the city centre are also partially connected to slavery. The buildings at Janskerkhof, Drift, and Kromme Nieuwegracht were built and embellished with colonial money. Asked whether the university should pay more attention to the history of its buildings, Jouwe refers to the United States, where this is already happening. In her project Mapping Slavery, in which she shows the connections between slavery and contemporary society, she reinforces that call. Finally, Jouwe organises walking tours in Utrecht showing the city’s connections to slavery.

Can you read in Dutch? Then participate in our giveaway! DUB is giving away two copies of the book.