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Slavery research on the up

An international congress, lectures and a new book series and magazine. It’s a hot topic at the moment that attracts broad public interest. Researchers, from historians to legal experts, are bringing together their expertise in the Leiden Slavery Studies Association.

12 years a slave

Interest in the painful issue of human trafficking is currently at an all-time high. This year it is 150 years since the United States abolished slavery. Interest in slavery had already been growing, both in the scientific world and in society in general, according to historian Karwan Fatah-Black. In the Netherlands, the 150-year anniversary of the abolition of slavery was celebrated in 2013. This gave the issue a major impetus, including as a result of the television series ‘Slavery’ (De slavernij ) and also thanks to the Oscar-winning '12 years a slave'.

Interdisciplinary approach to slavery research

Fatah-Black, together with historian Damian Pargas and other colleagues, has set up the Leiden Slavery Studies Association. Pargas: ‘Leiden has a unique group of researchers who are each looking at slavery from their own period and discipline: from slavery in the Middle Ages to the 20th century and from Suriname and the United States to Asia. We wanted to bring their different strengths together and foster interdisciplinary research.’ The research group started with historians and now also includes anthropologists, Africa specialists, legal scholars and researchers from International Studies.

Congress on Slaving Zones

The group is organising an international congress on Slaving zones on 1 and 2 June in Leiden. The congress will focus on slavery in all parts of the world, from ancient Egypt to the present day. The key question is: why are some groups forced into slavery and others not? Pargas: ‘The answer to this question will provide us with an insight into how people think about themselves and others, and will give us a better understanding of why slavery was and is possible.’

Greater focus on atypical slavery

Research on slavery has been approached differently in recent years. Fatah-Black: ‘The approach used to be very economically focused. A cost-benefit analysis was made and the conclusion was that slavery was not as profitable as people thought. Now what is being looked at is how embedded slavery was in the fabric of society, what the consequences were in all kinds of areas. More attention is also being paid to atypical forms of slavery, such as in urban areas.’

Full lecture halls for slavery topics

The interdisciplinary approach can be seen in the lectures that the group offered last semester. The lectures were full and are being repeated this year. Pargas: ‘Students are enormously interested in slavery and an increasing number of master’s students want to write their thesis on the subject. It’s a hot topic at the moment and that is at least in part because students are questioning freedom and the lack of freedom.’ According to Pargas, it also has to do with the interest in present-day forms of slavery and the wretched conditions in factories in Asia. ‘Students are much more aware of how consumer behaviour can perpetuate slavery.’

The research group is launching the new book series  Studies in Global Slavery via Brill publishers, and the new  Journal of Global Slavery.

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