Dries Lyna en Kathryn Smith
Dries Lyna en Kathryn Smith

Portrait as a symbol of Nijmegen's involvement in slavery

Radboud University historian Dries Lyna and South African artist Kathryn Smith have created a portrait of an Indonesian ‘former serf’ who lived in Nijmegen 200 years ago. The portrait is made up of photos of Nijmegen residents with Indonesian roots and will be unveiled during the Keti Koti Festival on 30th June.

The portrait symbolises Nijmegen’s involvement in slavery practices. The work of art will be unveiled in the presence of Mayor Hubert Bruls in Nijmegen’s council chamber during the Keti Koti Festival on 30th June. The portrait will be added to the exhibition Fugitiveat the Radboud University campus. The portrait symbolizes the city’s commitment to slavery.

Several researchers from the Faculty of Arts will speak at the celebration. Among other things, they will discuss slavery in the former Dutch East Indies, says historian Dries Lyna. ‘There has been a greater focus on the Netherlands’ colonial past in recent years, but so far, the emphasis has mainly been on the Caribbean. So far we haven’t seen much of a focus on the Indonesian diaspora.’


In 1814, a 19-year-old boy from Indonesia passed away in Nijmegen. Historian Dries Lyna was intrigued by the boy’s death certificate, which stated his name as Manille. ‘The certificate says he was an enslaved person from Makassar, owned by a Dutch soldier from Amsterdam. When the soldier returned from Indonesia and was appointed captain of a battalion stationed in Nijmegen, Manille ended up here, as well. However, we don’t know how he died,’ says Lyna.

‘As always with stories about slaves, we know a lot more about the life of the owner than about the life of the enslaved person,’ the researcher goes on to say. ‘Manille’ is the name he was given by his owner and we don’t know the name his parents gave him. In order to put a face to the boy, Lyna asked the South African artist and professor Kathryn Smith to create a portrait of Manille.

Forensic challenge

Smith is a forensic artist, who seeks to reconstruct dead people’s faces on the basis of their remains, such as their skulls. Such reconstructions are made to identify unknown dead persons, or to visualise people who lived in the past for the purpose of historical research or a museum exhibit. Smith’s portraits as included in Fugitive were based purely on text-based descriptions, obtained from public notices of run-away slaves printed in nineteenth-century newspapers by their owners.

In Manille’s case, there is no indication whatsoever of what he may have looked like. For this reason, the artist chose to make his portrait out of images of faces of people of Indonesian descent currently living in Nijmegen. ‘The end result was co-created with this community of Nijmegen residents with Indonesian roots,’ Smith explains. ‘I’m aware that this is not my own story to tell, but I’ve placed my skills at the service of their story.’

Unknown past

Smith hopes to put a recognisable and powerful face to the past. ‘The idea is to create a portrait that is not just plausible, but also evokes a sense of connectedness and some sort of recognisable personality.’ Lyna, too, believes that Manille’s personal story may strike a chord with many people: ‘I can see many other ways in which we may be able to use and commemorate Manille’s story.’ Plans have already been drawn up for an exhibition on Manille to be held in Nijmegen’s Besiendershuis this autumn.

The project on Manille is part of a collaboration between cultural creator Besienderhuis, Stemmen Uit Nijmagen and Radboud University’s Faculty of Arts in various ‘art meets science’ projects. Nijmegen’s slavery past and its impact is the first theme within this collaboration. In 2024 Radboud historian Coen van Galen and Joris van den Tol are investigating the involvement of the municipality of Nijmegen in slavery.

Contact information

For more information, please contact Persvoorlichting & Wetenschapscommunicatie via 024 361 6000 or media [at] ru.nl (media[at]ru[dot]nl). 

History, Art & Culture