Beyond Plymouth Rock: Global trends in the study of slavery

The slide saying that “less than 4% of slavery in the Western Hemisphere was in Colonial America” at Florida’s 2022 Summer Civics Professional Development course could have been used in a lecture given by Damian A Pargas, professor of the history and culture of North America at Leiden University in the Netherlands and director of the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies in Middelburg in the Netherlands.

For him and the other scholars who study slavery and race, and are based outside the United States, the 4% figure (or 5% that historian Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University cites) demonstrates the need for their project: the study of slavery, enslavement, ‘unfreedom’, the European slave trade and race outside the US.

For Florida’s teacher trainers, the fact that 96% of the men, women and children forcibly taken from Africa were held in bondage outside the American colonies – for example, in Jamaica, Surinam (today’s Suriname), Brazil and Guadeloupe – leads to a startlingly different conclusion. Twelfth-grade government and economics teacher Tatiana Ahlbum told the Tampa Bay Times that the trainers wanted the teachers to think that since the vast majority of slaves were outside America, slavery in America was “less bad”.

Developed following the passage of the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act”, Florida’s curriculum is Critical Race Theory (CRT) free. In an attempt to halt the teaching of CRT in universities, Florida now requires its universities to survey students and professors on the political tenor of classes and declare their political beliefs.

Texas too outlawed teaching CRT in universities and will soon bring in legislation that defines the teaching of CRT as a cause allowing for the dismissal of tenured professors. Dozens of other states have outlawed teaching CRT in their schools, colleges and universities.

The long lead times in scholarly publication mean that it is not yet possible to determine the impact of these laws on books and articles. Given the peremptory nature of Texas’ proposed law, it is likely that professors will shy away from certain research projects, lest even a whiff of CRT negatively affects their tenure reviews.

The effect on textbook writing, a lucrative sideline for many professors, is already clear. Recently, the Florida Department of Education rejected 43% of the mathematics textbooks submitted to it because they offended the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, used “social emotional learning” pedagogy, and-or contained CRT or “social justice” topics.

Concerned that the word “slavery” discomforts the state’s white students, the Texas State Board of Education is considering replacing it with the phrase “involuntary relocation”.

Since Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, made CRT a cause célèbre in mid-2020, scholars like Pargas and Professor Trevor Burnard, Wilberforce professor of slavery and emancipation at the University of Hull in England, have looked upon the debate about CRT that has roiled America with a mixture of bemusement and horror.

Rufo admits to setting out to make the theory a cudgel with which the Republicans could beat the Democrats in the 2020 election; previously it was known best in law schools, where it focused attention on how racism informs the structures and procedures of American law.

After saying that he’s been studying slavery for 30 years, Burnard deadpanned: “If you asked me to explain it [CRT], I wouldn’t be able to do so.”

People who study American history from outside the country, he continued, “would find it completely uncontroversial that the biggest issue for America during the colonial period and through the antebellum period is slavery, though this appears controversial in the American South. The study of slavery and racism is, however, mixed with various parts of the culture wars within America in ways that seem strange to the rest of the world.”

My discussion about CRT with Kwame Nimako covered some more theoretical ground. “If CRT is a theory, then it should be open to scrutiny, and those who adhere to the ‘theory’ should be in a position to defend it,” says Nimako, now retired from teaching international relations at the University of Amsterdam’s Graduate School of Social Sciences and who has written extensively on transatlantic slavery and directs the Amsterdam-based Black Europe Summer School.

Nimako does not use the term “white privilege”, which is central to CRT thinking, “because it is not a useful concept in the inter-state system at the global level”, though, he stressed, this does not mean that he is “anti-CRT”.

In January 2019 there was a conference on CRT at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and a special issue on CRT followed in the journal Droit et Société. However, according to Cécile Vidal, a professor (directrice d’études) at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, “it’s not an issue in France because the legal tradition is very different from the American one”.

That said, she pointed out that during French President Emmanuel Macron’s first mandate, in an effort to blunt Marine Le Pen’s appeal to being the true defender of Republican France, then minister of education Jean-Michel Blanquer, then minister of research Frédérique Vidal, as well as Macron, attacked what they called certain social science theories imported from the US. This was widely understood to include criticism of race studies.

Pargas, who was born and raised in the US, and, thus, has one foot on each side of the Atlantic, also underscored that the basic tenets of CRT are relatively uncontroversial among European historians.

“Historians tend not to be very big on theory anyway,” Pargas says. “The structural effects of slavery and racism and segregation are pretty clear. So no, we see it [the debate about CRT] as more like a politicised debate in America that has taken an alarming turn. It’s an assault on academic freedom.”

Thirteen states: A dominant focus

Thousands of American historians cast a wide net, studying topics from the economics of the North Atlantic slave trade, slavery and its aftermath in the Caribbean, in Surinam and Brazil, and a myriad of other issues. Yet, for obvious reasons, most American scholars focus on slavery in the 13 states that in 1861 formed the Confederate States of America and, because of its importance to the South, disproportionately on Virginia.

According to Stephen Small, professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s department of African American studies, there is a growing corpus of comparative work as well on the black diaspora by American-based scholars, yet “for every book on the Caribbean or Latin America, there are between 10 and 50 books on the US”.

Jane Gordon, political science professor at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut, who has written extensively on race and enslavement, says that among American scholars there is currently a great deal of interest in areas that had been “written out” of the history of race and slavery: for example, gender and sexuality, the circulation of ideas about slavery between the hemispheres, as well as how Indigenous people were racialised.

Yet, when thinking about racism and racial injustice, “most black studies scholars based in the US focus on the US black experience in the southeast [Dixie] from enslavement to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement,” she wrote in an email.

Limitations of the ‘American Freedom Narrative’

Outside the United States, Burnard told University World News, scholars speak about race and slavery differently than do their American counterparts, partly because the slave society in the US differed greatly from other slave societies, including those in the Caribbean sugar islands, Suriname and in the ancient world.

None of these societies produced anything like the debates about slavery and race that the US did between the nation’s founding and the Civil War, or for and against Jim Crow and, ultimately, for the Civil Rights Movement.

“The way we thought about slavery in the past, which was very American, was very much based on enslaved people wanting to be free and then gaining freedom. This ‘American Freedom Narrative’ leads up to Martin Luther King in 1963 in Washington” (and the “I Have a Dream” speech).

Applying the American Freedom Narrative elsewhere, Burnard says, is to assume that people in the rest of the world think of slavery and race in American terms.

“Take the particular example of the Black Lives Matter [BLM] protests,” he says. “Yes, it had a global impact. But it took different forms in different places. In Britain it was noticeable that the most important thing about BLM was that it led very quickly to the tearing down of the monument in Bristol to [the slave trader] Edward Colston. The things that happened in the United States about the defunding of police never really happened in this country.”

The focus on Colston’s monument, Burnard says, is a good example of how outside the United States the discussion about race and transatlantic slavery is situated within the wider discussion of European imperialism and its trading structures.

A deeper and wider view

Scholars, like those interviewed for this article, have both deepened and widened the study of slavery. Deepened, in the sense they look back beyond 1619 – when the first peoples kidnapped from Africa were landed and sold in Virginia – or the mid-1500s, when the Portuguese began kidnapping Africans and transporting them across the Atlantic – to the ancient world. Widening means looking beyond the American example.

One effect of this wider and deeper view, Burnard says, is a breakdown of the binary distinction between slavery and freedom. In its place, scholars look at forms of dependency that differ over time. Crucially, the expansion of the terrain shows that slavery or forced dependence need not be linked to consciousness of race. The decoupling of the link between race and slavery makes it all the more evident when it appears in the early modern period.

To show that there is no epistemic connection between slavery and race, Burnard pointed to the root of the word, the Russian Slav, meaning people of Central or Eastern Europe. Nor did all the slaves in Greece and Rome (thousands of whom were scribes and tutors) belong to a different race than their captors, at least as the term came to be understood by the middle 1500s and was codified by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach.

In his On the Natural Variety of Humanity, written in 1776, the same year that the American Declaration of Independence declared “All men are created equal”, Blumenbach was the first to name the so-called “five races of man”: Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, African and American. More importantly, he argued that there existed a hierarchy of intelligence and moral judgement, with Caucasians being at the apex.

According to Burnard, “one of the things that the new historiography has changed is the debate about whether slavery invented racism or racism led to slavery”. While not all historians would agree, Burnard says, “the balance of the evidence is very strong that there was racism against black people going back to the mediaeval period. And, therefore, people coming to America, both the West Indies and North America, were racist from the start and thought that black Africans should be enslaved.”

Burnard extends historian Orlando Patterson’s formulation that slavery was “social death” by saying that for Europeans and white Americans slavery was even worse than death.

Though he is the Prince of Denmark (who should, in fact, be the new king) when Hamlet thinks himself a coward, he declares: “O, what a rogue and peasant slave I am”. Shakespeare’s formulation shows how emotive the word had become by around 1600 because of the level of degradation it registers.

In 1775 in Virginia, Patrick Henry famously declared: “Give me liberty, or give me death”, death being preferable to the nadir to which American revolutionaries said British tyranny had reduced them: a fate comparable with that of enslaved Africans, like those Henry himself owned.

Deconstructing ‘slave’ and ‘trade’

In his chapter “Conceptual clarity, please! On the uses and abuses of the concepts of ‘slave’ and ‘trade’ in the study of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery” in Eurocentrism, Racism and Knowledge: Debates on history and power in Europe and the Americas (2015), Nimako deconstructs the ‘slave’ and ‘trade’ before extending his analysis of ‘slavery’ and ‘race’ to the present day.

“People did not voluntarily give themselves up to be enslaved in the age of slavery,” writes Nimako. Rather, they “were kidnapped and transported”. And many did not become slaves because they were killed or took their own lives before reaching the slave pens on the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Accordingly, Nimako told me, it is more accurate to use ‘enslavement’ than ‘slave’. For enslavement is the status that follows when somebody imposes a dominant will on another.

The word ‘trade’ is equally suspect. The Portuguese who kidnapped Africans wrote reports to King João in Lisbon saying they had purchased slaves from African merchants. But Nimako’s close reading of these reports shows that the African kings who were said to have sold Africans into slavery are never named.

In contrast, Nimako notes there are letters from rulers with names, such as Nzinga Mbemba, whom the Portuguese call Afonso. He wrote João complaining that “Each day traders are kidnapping our people – children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family.”

Importantly, Nimako says, it is not Mbemba who spoke of ‘slaves’ but João. In a reply to Mbemba, João says that Portuguese traders had told him that the Congo “is so thickly populated that it seems as if no slave has ever left it”.

Accordingly, “If there’s anything called trade,” Nimako says, “then it is the European slave trade because it is the Europeans who traded Africans among themselves when they were in the Americas.”

Nimako also offers a very different North American history than the one that begins with the Pilgrims stepping on to Plymouth Rock (Massachusetts) in 1620.

Europeans did not cross the Atlantic “to develop the American continent”, he writes. Rather, for almost 250 years America served as a farm and mines for European monarchs. The Spanish, the Portuguese and the English came to the Americas and used enslaved people to extract food and mine precious ore for European monarchs, who used gold and silver to trade with China for silks and spices.

Why did Europe become rich?

Nimako also problematises the grand capitalist narrative in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. He asked the correct question: “Why did Europe become rich?” Smith’s answer, Nimako says, “turned away from slavery and claimed that it [Europe’s wealth] was because of the ‘invisible hand’ [of the market] or the division of labour”.

(By ignoring slavery, Smith elided the fact that for more than two centuries England, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal had been extracting wealth from the Americas with enslaved Africans and that these slave trading countries had created wealth by enslaving Africans and selling them.)

The second part of Nimako’s article examines the anti-slavery movement that sprang up in the late-1800s as well as the post-Cold War anti-slavery movement that runs to today. “Both shift the burden of responsibilities of slavery away from Europe and European descendants and place it on others, such as Arabs and Africans in the late 19th century and Africa and Asia after the Cold War,” Nimako writes.

The anti-slavery movement that began in the late-1800s owed much to King Leopold II of Belgium. Part of his justification for taking personal control of the Congo in 1885 was “to go and fight Arab slave trade in Africa”. It was, Nimako avers, a “smokescreen” that allowed Leopold his role during what’s called the Scramble for Africa.

(Leopold’s lofty words, it’s worth noting, form one of history’s great ironies. For the 23 years Congo was his fief, millions of Congolese were held in conditions indistinguishable from slavery and were forced to do backbreaking work on rubber plantations. As many as 15 million Congolese died during this period from overwork, malnutrition and disease. Countless thousands were mutilated for trying to escape the plantations. Over this period, the sale of rubber netted Leopold 70 million Belgian francs.)

The post-Cold War anti-slavery movement may claim affinity with “the ‘old’ slave trade abolition movements of 18th and 19th century Britain”, writes Nimako. But it “remembers slavery primarily as a metaphor, and a foil, to highlight the smuggling and exploitation of what it defines as the ‘new slaves’ of the modern world” – undocumented workers from developing countries who make their way to Europe and North America.

The labelling of these economic migrants as “modern slaves serves only a racist purpose”, writes Nimako, as it fuels anti-immigrant groups and officials in both Europe and North America.

According to Nimako, this “new anti-slavery movement” appropriates the emotions associated with the historical anti-slavery movement that abolished slavery, which insults the descendants of those whose forebears were kidnapped from Africa and enslaved.

Further, the heart of the new anti-slavery movement is a major category error: “Labour exploitation cannot act as the starting point for the determination of the existence or non-existence of slavery.”

The specificity of chattel slavery – “a legal institution backed by states and governments” – is such that to claim that it applies to other forms of labour exploitation is a way of avoiding “developing new concepts to explain contemporary conditions of work and exploitation”.

It is “a fundamental distraction from addressing the legacies of the European slave trade in the nations of the modern world”, including the “always changing racisms that shape international and domestic relations”, writes Nimako.

The centrality of slavery in American history

When Claire Bourhis-Mariotti, associate professor of African American history at Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis in France, teaches American history, she begins with the central role slavery plays.

Part of her lectures on the American Constitution explicate the 16 words rendered inactive by post-Civil War Amendments. The words state that the apportionment of the House of Representatives “shall be determined by adding the whole number of free persons [and] three fifths of all other persons,” ie, slaves.

The infamous “Three-fifths Compromise” ensured that slave-holding states would have a stranglehold on the House of Representatives, allowing them to block legislation limiting slavery.

This peculiar constitutional calculus stands in stark contrast, Bourhis-Mariotti explains, to the clause in the Fifth Republic’s constitution that “ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion”.

Here, “race” functions in a uniquely French manner, supporting the official view that race does not exist in France. “I was raised with the idea that race doesn’t exist. We are told from primary school that we are not really preoccupied about the colour of my or your skin,” she says.

In 2018, the Assemblée nationale voted to remove “race” from the constitution; it remains because the Senate did not vote to remove it. On one side of the debate were those who argued that “by erasing the word ‘race’, we erase ‘racism’,” an argument Bourhis-Mariotti considered “stupid”.

The other side argued that removing ‘race’ from the constitution would undercut the legal protections against racism and programmes for racialised people suffering racial prejudice.

In her first book, L’Union Fait La Force: Les Noirs américains et Haiti, 1804-1893 (2016), using Haitian and other previously unexamined sources, Bourhis-Mariotti studied the links between the first Black Republic and the only one in the Western Hemisphere, and American blacks, a topic that until recently had been discussed chiefly by 19th century Haitian historians.

Her sources provided numbers of immigrants and important dates not available to researchers using American (English) sources. Haitian historians explained that Haitian presidents tried to attract African Americans because they had the skills the Haitians themselves lacked. “But it failed in the end,” she says, “mainly because of the language barrier”.

In the antebellum period, slaveholders were frightened by what the self-governing Black Republic represented to both free blacks and, of course, the enslaved millions. At various points, leading Southern politicians agitated for crushing the Black Republic militarily. “They feared some sort of contagion from Haiti after the revolution.

“A certain number of states passed laws forbidding newspapers from talking about the revolution in Haiti,” Bourhis-Mariotti says. “They also forbid the immigration of Haitians, including white Haitians to the United States, because they said these people would give ideas or hopes of emancipation to their slaves.”

Nevertheless, free blacks and slaves learned about Haiti from people working on boats, both before and after the war, and American blacks held two somewhat contradictory views of Haiti, she says.

On the one hand, they viewed it as “an ideal place where blacks liberated themselves and are able to self-govern, showing that they are equal to whites”. At the same time, from the 1820s onward, American blacks viewed Haiti “as a weak or infant country that could be developed so it could shine to the rest of the world so that from Haiti there would be a political regeneration of the black diaspora”, Bourhis-Mariotti says.

For a number of reasons, including the realisation that it was a poor country and because of recurring civil war, Bourhis-Mariotti told University World News, most of the American blacks who went to Haiti were disappointed in it. For Frederick Douglass, says Bourhis-Mariotti, the most disappointing aspects of Haiti was colourism, which put a greater value on being whiter.

French settlements

Cécile Vidal also works with previously overlooked, largely French, sources. Though focused on North America, her PhD thesis was well outside the mainstream of scholarship on race and slavery.

The pioneering study focused on 18th century French settlements located in present-day southern Illinois and northern Missouri. Although the French were dependent on the alliances they maintained with most Native American nations among whom they lived, they also enslaved Indigenous persons.

In the Illinois Country, French settlers used enslaved Native American and African slaves to produce wheat flour and ham exported to the French garrisons along the Mississippi River and to New Orleans. In the St Lawrence Valley, slaves were mostly used as domestics in Montreal and Quebec City; in Upper Louisiana, the work the French settlers’ slaves performed was similar to that of European peasants, Vidal says.

Vidal’s Caribbean New Orleans: Empire, race and the making of a slave society (2019), argues that in the 18th century, (French) New Orleans was a slave society strongly influenced by Haiti, which was then a French sugar plantation colony to which the port city was closely connected. She argues that race informed every domain of social life – from the intimate sphere of sexuality and family, to mixed-race unions and the status of free blacks.

“These expressions of racial domination never ceased to evolve according to demographic, economic and political circumstances. Hence, there were more continuities than discontinuities between North American and Caribbean systems of racial slavery” than have been recognised, notes Vidal.

Vidal’s most recent work is Les Mondes de l’esclavage: Une historie comparée (The Worlds of Slavery: A comparative history), for which she and Benedetta Rossi (professor of anthropology and history at University College London) were coordinators working with the book’s chief editor, professor of ancient history Paulin Ismard (Aix-Marseille Université). The book is a 1,000-page volume with essays by 70 contributors that trace slavery from the Neolithic period to Indian textile workers in 2021.

“The volume offers both a world history of slavery and an alternative history of the world seen through slavery. It investigates how slave systems operated and how they shaped social formations,” says Vidal.

“The comparative method allows us to better understand the commonalities and most of all the differences between the various forms of slavery through time and space. Instead of relativising the Atlantic system of slavery developed by Europeans in relation to imperialism, colonialism and capitalism, the comparison highlights its peculiarities, including its reliance on race.”

Additionally, Vidal says, Les Mondes de l’esclavage contributes to France’s struggle to acknowledge how much race is the main legacy of its former colonial empire and still informs social dynamics today.

The spectrum of ‘unfreedom’

Among the “fringe arguments” about the history of race that Pargas’s students pick up on social media and bring into lecture halls in Leiden is one that asserts that slavery was never abolished in the US because it morphed into sharecropping and exists today in mass incarceration of African Americans.

(Under sharecropping, the “freedmen”, as freed slaves were officially called, “leased out” land, often from their former masters, who provided the farming equipment and seed, payment being a share of their crop at extortionate rates that inevitably forced the freedmen into permanent debt servitude, which tied them to owners of the land.)

The emotive power of this claim for the perseverance of slavery-by-another-name aside, Pargas shows his students that it is shot through with category errors.

First, he addresses where chattel slavery is on the spectrum of “unfreedom”.

“When we talk about the rise of sharecropping, are we talking about unfree situations? Yes. But are we talking about the ownership, and buying and selling of human bodies and using them as capital for loans, one of the defining features of chattel slavery? No. With Jim Crow, we’re talking about a total denial of citizenship rights, while slavery is the denial of humanity,” he says.

Second, he directs his students to the narratives written by freedmen or -women after 1865 and those recorded in the 1930s by the Federal Writers’ Project to answer the question, “How did those who had been liberated discuss emancipation and the years that followed, including the development of sharecropping and Jim Crow?”

“None of them say slavery never ended, my life never changed. Rather, they see a huge transition in their lives. They acknowledge that it’s not freedom,” he told University World News. “But none of them say it’s slavery.”

To further drive home the point, Pargas widens the discussion and shows that American emancipation differed from that in Jamaica or in the Dutch colony of Surinam.

Emancipation in Jamaica occurred in 1834, almost three decades before it did in the United States. However, in Jamaica, for the first four years after emancipation the (former) slaves were indentured to their (former) masters.

In Surinam, slavery was abolished in 1863, the same year as the Battle of Gettysburg. But for the next 10 years, the (former) slaves were bound to their plantations for minimal pay and still subject to corporal punishment that amounted to torture.

By contrast, “in the United States, emancipation came immediately as a result of a very ideologically charged war. The slaveholders were destroyed, and the slaveholding South was destroyed.” The slaveholders did not receive compensation as they did in the British Empire . “Nowhere else where slaves were denied personhood and all recognition of humanity do we see one year later that a former slave is running for sheriff,” says Pargas.

It was, Pargas’s students learn, not to last. By the late-1870s white Southerners were taking back control of their states and ending the rights given to African Americans. By the late 1890s, having been re-tied to the land by sharecropping and its system of continual indebtedness, they were not really allowed to move where they wanted. “And by 1900,” Pargas says, “voting by African Americans was down to something like 0%.”

The Dutch role in the European slave trade

Several months before interviewing Pargas, I viewed the Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The exhibition placed Rembrandt in the context of the artists around him and, more importantly for my discussion with Pargas, showed how the slave/sugar trade enriched Holland’s economy and, hence, supported Amsterdam’s art market.

Accordingly, I asked Pargas a two-part question: “In Holland, how well known is the Dutch role in the European slave trade, and how well known is the tragedy of Surinam?

“The Dutch were absolutely crucial in spreading plantation slavery and sugar throughout the Caribbean,” he says. “Without the Dutch, that would not have happened. It starts with the Portuguese in Brazil, but then the Dutch take over Portuguese Brazil in the 1600s.” Dutch bankers financed the sugar plantations there and in Surinam, and Amsterdam itself became not just an entrepôt for the trans-shipment of sugar but the site of major sugar refineries.

Though American slaveholders’ claims that they treated their slaves well and that they were content are abhorrent, Pargas emphasised, he drew an important distinction between the regimen of American slavery and that in Surinam (and Jamaica, which resembled Surinam’s).

By the late 18th century, the enslaved population in the United States was self-sustaining. Dutch burghers never claimed their slaves were content. In fact, Pargas continued, the vast majority of Dutch slaveholders lived in Holland and, thus, had no contact with their slaves.

“For the Dutch, slavery was something that happened overseas. Surinam was a plantation project that existed solely for African slavery to labour on sugar plantations. Like Jamaica, which at its height produced 40% of Britain’s income, more than Scotland and Ireland combined, the income for Holland from sugar was enormous. Ultimately, however, the project failed,” Pargas said, before adding: “Demographically it was a disaster.”

Slave ships transported more than 210,000 enslaved Africans to Surinam. The brutality of the overseers, dangerous conditions in sugar cane mills, endemic diseases and malnutrition combined for an average yearly death rate of 5.6% between 1693 and 1733. Deaths outpaced births, as was also true in Jamaica for the same reasons. To survive economically, each of these sugar colonies required a steady supply of newly enslaved Africans.

And, to my question about the role the consciousness of this past plays in Holland? Pargas answered by referring to Holland’s Asian empire.

“Surinam is something that the Dutch Republic is not ready to understand,” he says. “The Dutch empire in Asia, in Indonesia, is a bit easier to deal with because it is seen as a success, partly because of the wealth brought and also because the Dutch took over a whole bunch of societies that already existed and superimposed Dutch merchant trade on them.” This view, Pargas added, ignores the fact that this empire too was racist and that slavery was an essential feature of the plantation economies there too.

After the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945, the Dutch military tried to reimpose Dutch rule on Indonesia, which the Japanese had occupied four years earlier. The war the Dutch fought between 1946 and 1949 against Sukarno’s forces killed 30,000 Indonesian troops, 6,226 Dutch soldiers, and as many as 100,000 Indonesian civilians.

Of this, Holland’s last imperial endeavour, Pargas said: “The Dutch are only just now coming to terms with their brutality,” words that apply, mutatis mutandis, to each of the countries that built their wealth on the European slave trade and with the forced labour of kidnapped Africans and their descendants.