'They are primitive and we are civilised'

Henk van Rinsum

The colonial history of Utrecht University

It is 1976 when Henk van Rinsum starts working at Utrecht University's Bureau Buitenland. He is dedicated to university development cooperation: helping to build and develop education and research in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Good, meaningful work, is the consensus. But something troubles Henk. Why would we want to tell others how to do research?

That question and his unease about inequality would not leave the historian and anthropologist. But his curiosity - about the university's colonial past, among other things – hasn’t disappeared either. It results in several publications. On 30 October, his latest book will be published: 'Utrecht University and colonial knowledge: studying, measuring and teaching since 1636'.

In a context of deep inequality colonial history begins 340 years before Henk van Rinsum starts at Bureau Buitenland. Henk: "Theology was one of the dominant faculties in the early years of the university. Some of the orthodox, pious preachers trained there were sent to the East Indies, Suriname and Africa to preach 'the true Reformed faith' to the uytlandsche and ingebore duysterlingen, like an alumnus formulated it in those days. My book is about Utrecht, but could also have been about other Dutch (and European) universities."

Superiority thinking and slavery are eerily close to each other


"In 'the new world' the emphasis is on exploration at first. Foreign lands, foreign people, religions, plants, animals and languages are explored. But apart from curiosity, this exploration also stems from self-interest. The more that is explored, collected and described, the more knowledge and therefore the more power there is. Besides: if you want to bring Christianity, you would also really need to be able to reach people in their own language.

Although I am sure there were some people with their heart in the right place, there has been superiority, inequality and power from the very beginning. 'We from the West are developed and are going to help you become as developed as we are.' Later development cooperation – in which I was active myself for many years - seems to be a continuation of that thinking. Local knowledge systems have thus been dismissed and pushed aside."

'They are actually not real people'

"Collecting and classifying plants and trees eventually also evolves into classifying people. White comes at the top and black at the bottom. They are primitive and we are civilised. I’m afraid there was also the thought: they are actually not real people. At least not like us. This superiority thinking and slavery are eerily close to each other.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, exploration in the colonies turns into exploitation. Indonesia, the main focus of my book, turned into a capitalist economy with plantations growing rice, coffee and sugar. Slavery was abolished, but coolies were collected from India and China and they were forced to work in similar conditions on the plantations. Utter exploitation."

Enrich and profit

"Experimental science really takes off at this time and is instrumental in colonial exploitation. Natural sciences like biology, geology and pharmacy have in their development benefited enormously from the colonies. Collected material is experimentally examined at test stations and thus brought into our field of knowledge. Research - including in Utrecht - is also being done with human material!

Scientifically enriched in and through the colony, academics then returned to the Netherlands, for instance to Utrecht, to pursue their careers. While local staff and students have only been allowed to participate in and benefit from this science in a very limited way."

Real dialogue

"Inequality has existed for centuries. I have thought about whether you should apologise, but then I sometimes think: to whom? I don't find terms like reproach and shame productive. But I do think we should start a real dialogue with some of the universities we had extensive collaborations with, from what we now call ‘The Global South’. Like Anton de Kom in Suriname and Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogjakarta - ask to hear their views! Fortunately, this is already happening to some extent.

And what is the outlook? Although it is no longer by force, superiority still plays a role. For example, we would invite people and say, 'we will pay your expenses'. Some people also call rankings a continuation of colonial relations. After all, no one can compete with a university like Harvard. However way you look at it: the balance is still not there. So how should it continue? Can it be done without superiority relations? Beyond the idea of 'development', namely development of the other? That question will always occupy my mind."


If you want to join the conversation on this topic, please sign up for the book launch and panel discussion (in Dutch) on Monday 30 October in the Academy Building. The panel will include Patricia Schor, Bruce Mutsvairo, Henk Kummeling and author Henk van Rinsum.