'Church and slavery' research project launched

3 January 2023

The NWO research project "Church and Slavery in the Dutch Empire: History, Theology and Heritage" has officially started on January 1, 2023. The project was applied for with coordination and financial support of the PThU in collaboration with colleagues at the VU Amsterdam and the University of Curaçao (UoC). One of the senior researchers within the project is Professor Rose Mary Allen of the University of Curaçao, who introduces herself below.


Since 2021, hard work has gone into writing the NWO proposal, forming a large and diverse research team, involving stakeholders from churches and society, and launching the first subprojects, which will contribute to church and society discussions as early as 2023. For example, through a large public event in cooperation with NiNSee (The National Institute Dutch Slavery History and Heritage) and church partners, which will most likely be held in June. During this event, among other things, a "Guide Church and Slavery" will be presented (in development, led by Dr. Dienke Hondius).

The pleasant thing about this exciting project is that, on one hand, it is new: NWO is funding two junior and two senior researchers from January 1, 2023. On the other hand, this project can be seen as­ recognition and upgrade of previous research because all researchers involved from PThU, VU and UoC have long been working in the field of slavery research and been involved in the ecclesiastical and theological process of investigating and healing the wounds of the slavery past (including related issues like racism, colonialism). The NWO project is already surrounded by several related research projects and church- and society-focused activities, creating an interdisciplinary, vibrant and highly inspiring working environment.

Introducing: senior researcher Rose Mary Allen

In the coming months and years we will report regularly on the progress of the sub-studies, the activities in which we will involve churches and society, and the project's researchers. Starting with an introduction of Professor Rose Mary Allen of the University of Curacao, who brings anthropological expertise and a Caribbean perspective to the table. Her impressive 2022 Keti Koti lecture at Pakhuis de Zwijger can be heard on YouTube.

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Keti Koti lecture Prof. Dr. Rose Mary Allen 88:06

Rose Mary Allen, along with colleague Heleen Zorgdrager, will supervise one of the PhDs and also contribute to the project's research herself. She looks back and forward, "The year 2022 is certainly a special one for me. After the Covid-19 pandemic subsided, attention to the slavery past dominated the news in both the Netherlands and the Caribbean parts of the Kingdom. Looking back on this year, one of the highlights has been the NWO approval of the research project "Church and Slavery in the Dutch Empire: History, Theology and Heritage," a joint project of the Protestant Theological University (PThU), the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) and the University of Curaçao (UoC).

Capturing stories of slavery

"My interest in the history of slavery dates back a long time. After graduating from the Catholic University Nijmegen (now Radboud University), I returned to Curaçao and became a staff member at the Archaeological Anthropological Institute Netherlands Antilles (AAINA) in the early 1980s. There I began interviewing descendants of enslaved people on the various islands of the Netherlands Antilles. Much of their history survives primarily in the oral form of narrative proverbs, song stories, myths, folk tales, fairy tales, animal fables, anecdotes, ballads and the like, passed down from generation to generation. This narrative heritage still has the primary function of trying to make a complex world of life comprehensible. For centuries, this group has used oral tradition not only as a means of communication, but equally as a weapon to resist discrimination and oppression and to assert personal, socio-cultural and political identity. I have tried to capture their stories in a large number of publications on the Dutch Caribbean islands, addressing themes of identity, cultural traditions, migration, gender and cultural diversity.

Effect history of slavery

"My nomination in 2021 as Extraordinary Professor of Culture, Community and History, especially with respect to the local and Caribbean perspective, at the General Faculty of the University of Curaçao Dr. Moises da Costa Gomez (UoC), is one of the highlights of my career for me. I introduced my inaugural speech with the poem Fiami un piki [Give me a pickaxe] by Curaçao poet and ethnologist Elis Juliana, whom I admire for his commitment to the study of oral history. As pioneers, he and Father Brenneker recorded stories of the Afro-Curaçaoan population as early as the 1950s and 1960s, when many were still ashamed to talk about the slavery past. Juliana wryly described the effect of the slavery past in the lives of current generations as follows: "ainda e herida ku kadena di sklabitut a laga na pia di mi pueblo ta saka pus" [the wounds left on the feet of my people by the chains of slavery are still oozing pus].

Role of the Protestant Church

Through the research project, the role that the Protestant Church has played in the Dutch slavery past also comes into focus. Through the various activities planned together with church stakeholders that create awareness and encourage dialogue between white and black, the impacts are addressed and steps are taken to heal the wounds. The fact that one of the doctoral students in the project is from Curaçao will also pay attention to Suriname and Indonesia in her research, as well as the fact that UoC is also working on capacity building, will certainly benefit the growth of this university."

Significant moment

The project starts at a significant moment. Less than two weeks ago, "on the threshold of the commemorative year," Mark Rutte apologized on behalf of the Dutch government for the Dutch slavery past and stressed, that this must be a beginning and actions must follow. With our project, we hope to be able to contribute to making 2023 the year in which not only the historical date of 150 years of abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies is commemorated, but in which the descendants of the perpetrators and of the enslaved address today's acute questions of justice and reparation with respect for each other, in church and academy, in politics and society.

Annette Merz and Rose Mary Allen