illustratie predikant Jan Brandes op Sri Lanka in 1785: kaneelschillers op een kaneelplantage in een buitenwijk van Colombo
illustratie predikant Jan Brandes op Sri Lanka in 1785: kaneelschillers op een kaneelplantage in een buitenwijk van Colombo

'European slavery in Asia seems to have almost disappeared from collective memory'

Historian Dries Lyna and his colleagues are trying to bring the forgotten Asian slavery back into history. ‘We want to reconstruct family histories of enslaved people and their descendants’ With his research, Lyna hopes to contribute to a wider awareness of the colonial past and its repercussions on our culture.

How is it that we know so little about slavery in Asia compared to the history of the Atlantic slave trade? That is the question historian Dries Lyna and his Leiden colleagues are asking in their study, entitled Forgotten Lineages. Afterlives of Dutch slavery in the Indian Ocean world. “It is estimated that European slavery in Asia snatched one million people away from their native lands. How is it that this episode seems to have almost disappeared from collective memory, both locally and here in the Netherlands?”

Difference with transatlantic slavery

Part of the explanation lies in the supposed differences between the Asian and transatlantic slave trade. The latter focused mainly on supplying labour for plantations, while in Asia people were used more as house slaves. “That is why, for a long time, people had the idea that Asian slavery was not as bad. But recent research shows that Asia also had proto-plantations, where people were made to work very hard. And those ‘house slaves’ also often faced physical abuse.” The scale was different, however: Transatlantic slavery snatched many more people from their environment than the one million in Asia: as many as 12 million people.

This ‘forgetting’ is also partly due to the fact that it's hard to say who is descended from Asian enslaved people and who is not, the researcher explains. The transatlantic slave trade was largely about Africans being brought to North and South America and exploited by white, European plantation owners. African-Americans in the US are still suffering the consequences of that system. In Asia, the slave trade was largely inter-Asian. The Dutch East India Company (VOC), for example, brought people from Indonesia to Sri Lanka and from Sri Lanka to South Africa. There are groups living around the Indian Ocean who still occupy a marginal position, which we strongly suspect stems from this distant slavery past.

In their research project, the researchers are searching for those roots. To do so, they use release letters from before 1863, the year when the Netherlands officially abolished slavery, as one of the last European countries to do so. Even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, individual slaves were sometimes released by their owners. These documents provide a starting point: they list names of owners, enslaved people and their relatives. “We then look for these people in a variety of other colonial sources such as court records, tax lists, and church registers, and try to reconstruct their life stories.”

Colonialism on your plate

It's important to tell more and more stories about the slavery past, says Lyna. The Slavery Memorial Year provides an ideal opportunity for this. “Those stories should not just be about the history of slavery, but about the broader system of which that history was part: a colonial system of exploitation and oppression, in which not everyone had access to civil rights, education, or justice. That system continues to work on, to this day. What we call ‘Dutch’ culture or identity is the result of centuries of migration and exchange within that colonial system. Even an eighteenth-century crofter from the Achterhoek region already had the colonial world in his home: cotton from India in his clothing, tobacco from North America in his pipe, porcelain teacups from China on the mantel, and cinnamon in his apple pie from Sri Lanka.”

With the new research group Colonial Relations and Structures, Lyna hopes to contribute to a wider awareness of this past, together with his colleagues in the humanities faculties. “This is not about guilt or innocence, but about a growing awareness. You can say that descendants of enslaved people should do this research themselves, but I think it is also important for white Europeans to contribute to this inquiry. After all, this concerns our shared past. We also need to question our own identity through that past. Moreover, the inequality that began at the time works through in resources and research time, for example: there is much more time and money available here than in the Global South. We want to work with people from those countries to write this history. We are continuously collaborating with researchers in South Africa, Suriname, and Sri Lanka, for example.”

Illustration by preacher Jan Brandes on Sri Lanka in 1785: cinnamon peelers on a cinnamon plantation in a suburb of Colombo.

Slavery Memorial Year

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Contact information

For more information, please contact Dries Lyna via dries.lyna [at] (dries[dot]lyna[at]ru[dot]nl) or team Science Communication via +31 24 361 6000 of media [at] (media[at]ru[dot]nl).

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History, Society