Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

‘Being a slave’ Indian ocean slavery in local context

What did it mean to be enslaved in in the Indian Ocean world in the 18th and 19th centuries? Over the last decades, historians have mined French, British, Portuguese and Dutch records for quantitative data on the European slave trade. This project focuses on the experience of being a slave and seeks qualitative data to recover ordinary lives and, crucially, to place this experience in its Asian local context.

2016 - 2017
Nira Wickramasinghe

The emphasis is on the origin and afterlife of enslavement, rather than the trade in slaves itself. Slave occupations were diverse and varied according to location: from domestic service, to construction, food cultivation and animal herding; they worked as sailors and fishermen, or in artisanal occupations ranging from distilleries to saltpeter manufacturing. We know very little however on their lives outside of labour. How do experiences from the Indian Ocean world add to the debate over ‘social death’ (Patterson) observed in Atlantic slavery by some scholars? This project will strive to force the archive in order to extract traces of these subaltern lives from court records, petitions or private letters and to listen to local voices by prying unexplored primary sources such as oral histories and memories.

Project activities include an international interdisciplinary workshop in June 2017, a joint article and further grant applications. The project is funded by LGI and affiliated with the Leiden Slavery Studies Association (LSSA).

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