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‘Research on slave ships too moralistic’

‘In recent publications about the slave trade the same rhetorical weapons are used as two centuries ago in the battle for the abolition of the British slave trade. It is a topic fraught with emotions, but that should not prevent historians from being as careful and impartial as possible in their research,’ claims Leiden Professor of Maritime and Expansion History, Henk den Heijer. Den Heijer gave his inaugural lecture on Monday 11 April.

Slave trade abolished two hundred years ago

The slave trade was abolished in Great Britain in 1807. Seven years later Holland followed suit. The slave trade has been studied extensively in past decades, particularly by British and American historians. Den Heijer: ‘These as well as other national and international studies have produced a huge amount of quantitative data about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but they do not give us any insight into what life on board the slave ships was like.’


In his inaugural lecture Den Heijer spoke about what lies behind the perceptions about slave ships. The image created in Anglo-Saxon literature appears to be influenced by the rhetoric of the adversaries of the slave trade. On top of that, the lack of adequate source material made it difficult for researchers to get a good impression of what went on aboard British slave ships. Little mention is made of this in studies about the British slave trade.

Middelburg Trading Company

How can the Netherlands contribute to the research into life and work aboard slave ships? Den Heijer explained that Holland has at its disposal the preserved and almost complete archives of the Middelburg Trading Company. ‘This gives us the opportunity to study in detail life and work aboard the Zeeland slave ships, and to paint a truer, non-moralistic picture.’

Continuing research

Much research still remains to be done to gain a clearer picture of the slave trade. In the coming years, Den Heijer intends to continue to conduct research into the Dutch slave trade, together with his students. In addition, he will study Dutch shipping and trade in the Atlantic area in the early-modern age, as well as the development of the fishing trade in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Maritime history unique in Leiden

Leiden University has the only Maritime and Expansion History chair in the Netherlands. The special aspects of the chair are its contacts with museums and foundations active in this field, as well as the role Den Heijer plays from the University as pivotal figure in this network. Den Heijer is the fourth Professor of Maritime and Expansion History; his predecessors were Taco Hayo Milo, Jaap Bruijn and Femme Gaastra. That the chair could be occupied again in 2010 is partly thanks to a large donation for a period of ten years from the following maritime funds:

  • Eastern Trade and Shipping (Oostersche Handel en Reederijen)

  • Fatherland Fund (Vaderlandsch Fonds)

  • Van Kinsbergen Fund

  • Prins Hendrik Foundation

  • Dorus Rijkers Fund

  • NISS Support Fund

  • National Historic Shipping Museum (Nederlandsch Historisch Scheepvaartmuseum)


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