Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Regulating Relations: Controlling Sex and Marriage

How Did Dutch Colonial Institutions Control Sexual Behavior and Intimate Relationships and How Did They Shape Relationship Across Cultural Divides?

2017 - 2021

Leiden: Prof Cátia Antunes (supervisor) and Dr Karwan Fatah Black (co-supervisor)

IISG partners: Prof Ulbe Bosma and Dr Matthias van Rossum

Policing sexual conduct formed a cornerstone of Dutch attempts to forge social hierarchies and ethnic boundaries overseas. Local governing institutions of the Dutch empire invariably formulated regulations to impose sexual and marital segregation between Europeans and non-Europeans in various ways and with varying levels of intensity. This segregation could not be maintained in practice, not least because male European migrants far outnumbered female migrants. Regulating intercourse allowed for highly subjective interventions by the colonial state into the private lives of its subjects. In practice, Dutch colonial governments delegated part of the policing of sexual norms to formally recognized, ethnically or religiously defined communities. The purview to regulate sexual conduct in these communities formed one of the crucial elements of communitarian autonomy in the empire. For slaves without the ability to join ecclesiastical communities, sexual norms were the object of regulation through local governing institutions and owners/managers. The regulations of such relationships reshaped ethnic boundaries and emphasized the difference between free and unfree (Niemeijer 2005; Jordaan 2012; Roitman/Ben-Ur 2014).

Low female migration to colonies meant frequent sexual relationships and marriages between European men and non-European women. Most Dutch settlements in Asia consequently included mixed communities, with varying claims to Dutch or Portuguese descent (mestizos, maardikers, toepasses), and communities of mixed, non-European origin (peranakan Chinese) (Blussé 1988; Bosma/Raben 2008; Oostindie 2008). Similar communities of Eurafricans (mulatten, tapoeyers) developed in the Atlantic colonies. Across the empire, the mixed communities became an integral part of colonial society, neither fully part of the colonial elite, nor part of the colonial population. These multi-racialized people often provided continuity, sometimes of an informal nature, in business affairs and colonial administration across the empire. Everywhere, however, their position was fraught with tensions, especially in colonies where the baptism of non-Europeans was forbidden and their existence a clear indication of large-scale transgressions of ecclesiastical or worldly laws.

We hypothesize that the regulation of sexual behavior and relationships (marriage) was strongly interwoven with the governing of the multiple localities of the empire. Communitarian self-disciplining in matters of sexuality contributed to the formation of memberships regimes based on ethnic lineage. We further hypothesize that the formation of a category of people as ‘mixed’, and by definition arising out of the transgression of ethnic boundaries, created a group whose loyalty to colonial hierarchies was resilient and who offered local continuity in the various settlements.

This subproject will start by making an inventory of the existing literature on marriage regulations and control of sexual conduct in the empire. For Asian settlements, especially Batavia, this literature is more developed, while for the Atlantic it is much more limited. The subproject can profitably refer to the collections of local bylaws (Plakaatboeken) regarding sexuality and marriage along the lines of status (free/unfree), religion, origin (subject and foreigner) and gender. Court records provide the ultimate source material for an in-depth study of how and to what extent local governing councils intervened in the sexual behavior of their subjects. Decisions by institutions of communal autonomy (such as decisions to banish transgressors) had to be ratified by the local colonial court and have therefore left their traces in court records. The excavation of these records, from the general to the normative (bylaws) and finally to the practice of the courts, will explain how sexuality and marriage (and, with that, ethnicity and membership regimes) were regulated in the Dutch empire.

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