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Lecture | LIAS Lunch Talk Series

Slavery in the Indian Ocean World and the Work of Forgetting: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Wednesday 10 May 2023

1.04 (Verbarium)


In this talk I will share with you the central features of my NWO Open competition grant entitled Forgotten Lineages. Afterlives of Dutch Slavery in the Indian ocean world. My two PhD researchers Sanayi Marcelline and Pouwel van Schooten will also briefly present their own sub-projects. These are very early thoughts since our project that runs from 2023 to 2027 started only in January!

The overall project explores the paths through which generations of formally enslaved and their descendants gradually forgot their past of enslavement under Dutch and British imperial rule and became local subjects in Sri Lanka and South Africa. Forgotten Lineages will shed light on three interconnected processes that were at play in these Indian Ocean territories: individual self-identification, community formation and colonial institutions‘ role in fashioning subjects according to racialized logics. The main question we ask is why and how did forgetting rather than memory become the basis of belonging and selfhood in Galle, Colombo and South Africa from the 17th to 19th centuries ?

I will first provide some context: Sri Lanka was indeed a crucial node of Dutch slave trade activities in the Indian Ocean world connecting present-day South Africa, Mauritius, and Indonesia. Then discuss the challenges posed by the sources we plan to use: inter alia colonial sources from Dutch eighteenth-century last wills, cadastral registration, nineteenth-century British slave registers and church records as well as Sinhalese narrative sources. Finally a word on forgetting as a notion, process and practice that infuses the entire project.

"Alphabetical Register of Domestic Slaves in the District of Colombo" (early 19th century)

About the speaker

Nira Wickramasinghe is Chair/ Professor of Modern South Asian Studies at Leiden University. She has a D.Phil in modern history from the University of Oxford (1989). Before moving to Leiden, she was for 19 years a senior lecturer and professor in the Department of History at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Her research centers on issues of belonging and everyday life under colonialism in Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean. Some of her recent books include: Slave in a Palanquin. Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka (Columbia University Press 2020) – that was awarded the J.F Richards 2021 Prize in South Asian History by the American Historical Association and more recently Monsoon Asia. A Reader on South and Southeast Asia co-edited with David Henley. She has been, inter alia, a Fellow at the Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University, a British Academy Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford and a Fulbright Senior Scholar at New York University. Her current research on enslaved people detaches Lanka from the subcontinent to insert the island in the Indian Ocean world.

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