Traces of slavery in Utrecht also visible at the university

Lantaarnconsole ‘De Moriaan’ aan de Oudegracht in de Utrechtse binnenstad. Bron: WikimediaLantaarnconsole ‘De Moriaan’ aan de Oudegracht in de Utrechtse binnenstad. Bron: Wikimedia
Street-light console ‘De Moriaan’ at the Oudegracht in the Utrecht inner city. Source: Wikimedia

Like other well-known Dutch governance and trade centres, the city of Utrecht was also closely involved in the slave trade and slavery. What this involvement looked like has been investigated by Nancy Jouwe MA on behalf of the municipality of Utrecht. She carried out the investigation with historians Dr. Remco Raben and Dr. Matthijs Kuipers, and students at the university. “We worked on this research with much dedication and we were surprised by the many historic facts that came to light. Utrecht is a city that its residents don't associate with colonial history, let alone a slavery past. This research will definitely change that,” Project Leader Nancy Jouwe states. A conversation with the three researchers on the research and the traces of slavery at Utrecht University.

Boek Slavernij en de stad Utrecht

“The research shows that governance, civilians and institutions of Utrecht have directly and indirectly encouraged, invested in and profited from colonial exploitation and production systems based on slavery in America, Africa and Asia,” project leader Nancy Jouwe tells. “Utrecht shows that a city without big colonial institutions still has close ties to the Dutch history of slavery.” The accompanying book ‘Slavernij en de stad Utrecht’ (in Dutch) was presented during the Keti Koti memorial on 30 June 2021.

Slavery past systematically charted

“It’s been a beautiful project,” Raben states. “We have charted the slavery past of Utrecht systematically for the first time by means of archive research. I was very surprised with the intensity of the city's involvement and the diversity of connections we can make with the slavery complex in Utrecht.”

The deeply rooted colonial interests of Utrecht and the long history of black presence and abolitionism show the interdependence of the cities with the past and the effects of slavery.

Nancy Jouwe. Bron: YouTube (still)
Nancy Jouwe MA
In 1721 liet de pas opgerichte Provinciale Utrechtsche Geoctroyeerde Compagnie ‘het Suikerhuis’ bouwen (bron: Utrechts Archief/Catalogusnummer 202792)
In 1721, the newly founded Provinciale Utrechtsche Geoctroyeerde Compagnie had ‘het Suikerhuis’ built (source: Utrechts Archief/Catalogusnummer 202792).

Provincial university town

“In the 17th and 18th centuries, Utrecht was a provincial university town. This made it not a ‘usual suspect’ like Rotterdam and Amsterdam, cities with VOC chambers and harbours,” Kuipers tells. “The assumption that came from that was that there would therefore be nothing to find, but we show that that's incorrect.” Jouwe says: “For instance, the students have counted Vroedschap members and mayors in the 17th and 18th centuries. For this, they looked at these civil servants' direct and indirect colonial interests.” “Over 40 % of the administrators had at one point interests in the colonies, and these were all based on slavery, including in the Dutch East Indies,” Raben adds. “Many residents of Utrecht were deeply involved in slavery. With investments and personal careers or with governance.”

Utrecht civilians invested in slavery

Matthijs Kuipers jumped head first into the investments of Utrecht residents in the colonies and plantations: “For instance, there was a notary who invested in the colonies on behalf of the Utrecht population. These investors didn't need to have any expertise themselves. This resulted in many residents investing in a system based on slavery. They co-contributed to its continuation, they profited from it but didn't want or needed to know much about it.”

It's interesting that Utrecht, although ten times smaller than Amsterdam, has proportionally produced quite many prominent VOC staffers.

High positions in the VOC

In the project, Raben explored the role of the VOC in 17th-century Utrecht and the role Utrecht residents played in colonial society. “In brief, it turns out that a relatively big number of Utrecht residents ended up in high positions at the VOC. High positions that also made them responsible for local regulations on slave trade. It's interesting that Utrecht, although ten times smaller than Amsterdam, has proportionally produced quite many prominent VOC staffers. You can explain that with the important role of nobility, where rich nobles’ sons found their way to the company while seeking fortune.” 

Academic education

Many people found their way to the VOC via the university route. Colonial administrators and their children studied at Utrecht University. “With an academic education back then, you could start at a higher position at the VOC. Many also returned to Utrecht or already lived there. We see that they practically bought their way into the Utrecht patriciate, with colonial fortune. On the other hand, we've also looked at employability and we then saw that thousands of Utrecht residents got jobs at the VOC as sailors or soldiers, so the VOC was also important to Utrecht for employment opportunities," Raben comments.

Jan Ackersdijck en Christiaan Hendrik Trotz. Bron: Wikimedia
Jan Ackersdijck and Christiaan Hendrik Trotz. Source: Wikimedia

Personal involvement

The researchers also investigated the personal involvement of Utrecht University staff members in the slavery complex. Raben states: “They came in various flavours. For instance, the 18th-century Rector Magnificus and lawyer Christiaan Hendrik Trotz was a proud co-owner of ‘half’ a sugar plantation called ‘Georgia’ in Essequibo. He lived on Janskerkhof. On the other hand, you had someone like abolitionist Jan Ackersdijck. He was a professor of political economy and was a co-initiator of a manifest against slavery around 1840.

Belle van Zuylen

Belle van Zuylen is also covered in the book. The author enrolled in classes at Utrecht University and you can find the Belle van Zuylen Room in Utrecht University Hall (Dutch name: Academiegebouw). Jouwe says: “Belle is the pride of Utrecht. But we do show in our book that Belle could live a very comfortable luxury life as a writer thanks to big colonial investments. Her family and her too were very deeply involved in that.”

University buildings connected to slavery

Het pand Janskerkhof 13 in Utrecht
Janskerkhof 13

While looking at university buildings in the inner city, you see many connections to slavery too. Buildings on Janskerkhof, the Drift and Kromme Nieuwegracht were built and beautified with colonial money. “And with colonial money, we mean money made with enslaved people's labour. And if we say colonies, those are all systems in which enslaved people were crucial and instrumental to the profits. In Asia too, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people were active. We sometimes forget that,” Raben adds. “Janskerkhof 13, which currently houses the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, used to be the home of Jan van Voorst, Director General of slave fortress Elmina, the most important hub to the transatlantic slave trade. He personally moved hundreds of slaves to Suriname and he could buy that building with that money.” For the question whether or not the university should spend more attention to the history of the buildings, Jouwe refers to the United States, where this is being done. And she also speaks out in favour of it from her earlier project Mapping Slavery. Jouwe also organises slavery city-walk tours in Utrecht, which you can find more about on (in Dutch).

Traces of slavery in science

The traces of slavery cannot only be found in just the city, but can also be found in our science. According to Raben, there is “not a single discipline at the university that didn't profit in some way from or even build upon knowledge or even money from the colonies. Whether you're looking at medical science or to anthropology or history. Actually, our entire science is deeply rooted in colonial practices. We have yet to carry out that research.”

V.l.n.r. De onderzoekers Remco Raben, Nancy Jouwe en Matthijs Kuipers
Researchers Remco Raben, Nancy Jouwe and Matthijs Kuipers.

The curriculum at the university

The book also pays attention to the present, as Lulu Helder wrote about the curriculum at the university. In the 1990s, there was dissatisfaction among students and there were protests over the unilateralism of the curriculum when it comes to slavery and racism. Nancy Jouwe was involved in this ‘Nieuw Perspectief’ movement. To the question whether or not positive changes have come about since then, Jouwe replies: “Things are never linear. I was in a bubble of women's studies in the 1990s. I was relatively lucky, bell hooks was a visiting professor, Angela Davis visited and we later had Gloria Wekker as a Professor of Gender and Ethnicity. After that, the university has only become whiter. After her emeritus status, Gloria Wekker's chair remains unoccupied. It's not true that gained territory remains gained, I'd say the opposite is true. But what we do hope is that this publication inspires others to do more interdisciplinary research, because there is still much to discover and much hasn't been investigated yet.”