Wrapping up my Treadmill of Conferences: Reflecting on the Hull-Bonn-Leiden Seminar

Jen Nghishitende

PhD Student, Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


Having attended seven conferences so far in her PhD journey, Jen Nghishitende had considered giving the last seminar of this year a miss, but she was very glad she didn’t.

On the 24th and 25th of November 2022 the yearly International PhD Seminar on Slavery, Servitude & Extreme Dependency (Hull-Bonn-Leiden seminar) took place at the Wilberforce Institute in Hull. It brought together three institutions researching slavery and other forms of exploitation. The Wilberforce Institute focuses on research on historical and contemporary slavery, and it is further developing research in children’s exploitation. The international Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies (BCDSS) at the University of Bonn employs the interesting concept of ‘strong asymmetrical dependency’ in its research on profound social dependencies such as slavery, serfdom, debt bondage, and other forms of a permanent dependency throughout eras, regions and cultures. The third institute is the Leiden Slavery Studies Association (LSSA). The LSSA is dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of slavery and post-slavery in any period and geographical region.

In addition to research, these three institutions are committed to organising joint activities aimed at cross-pollination and promoting new avenues of inquiry into the themes of historical and modern cases of slavery, servitude, and other forms of extreme dependency. One such activity is this yearly PhD seminar, which drew in researchers at various stages of their projects from Bonn, Leiden, and Hull and other universities whose research covers any aspect of slavery, servitude, or extreme dependency in any geographical setting and period. As is now the norm, the seminar followed a hybrid online and in-person format to give those who could not make it to Hull the opportunity to attend and participate. This culminated in researchers coming together to share research and fruitful engagement with one another’s work.

While I was extremely excited to introduce the African literary term Ngambika and explore and put on paper the cycles of dependence I have seen in my work upon first receiving the call for papers, I later contemplated pulling out of the seminar for various reasons, one of which is that I had become conference-participating fatigued at this point, having presented at about seven conferences and various other seminars so far in my PhD journey.

I am delighted I forged ahead, as I gained so much from this seminar. Not only was I allowed to speak at length about my work – every researcher was allocated thirty minutes to speak, followed by a lengthy question and answer session – but I also gained a wealth of knowledge and made great new connections with those present. Ideas for developing our papers further and suggestions for literature were exchanged.

Twelve brilliantly thought-provoking papers were presented and thoroughly engaged via question-and-answer sessions and over coffee and food. All papers were shared in advance. This allowed people to engage with the written paper and offered a better understanding of what the paper was all about as opposed to merely listening to presentations, which by nature, are compacted. The engagements during coffee breaks and lunch were also fantastic as they gave more opportunities to discuss, get to know one another and share opportunities. During a coffee break, I was pleased to learn from Taynã Tagliati about the Heinz Heinen Kolleg call for fellowship applications, which I share widely here for those who may be unaware of such a call and may be interested in applying.

The wide-ranging nature of the topics covered layers of dependency and other aspects of historical and contemporary slavery. Below I will give brief overviews of some of the papers presented to give context to the research topics covered. However, the papers are works in progress, and I am thus limited in what I can share about them in this blog. Also, I will only share the papers of those who consented to be mentioned in this blog.

Ramona Negrón (Leiden) gave the first paper of the seminar entitled `The Coymans Asiento of 1685: Organizing Transimperial Trade’ in which she assessed how Balthasar Coymans (1652-1686) obtained the Spanish Asiento de Negros of 1685 and how he organised the administration of the contract.

On life histories, the archive, and silenced lives and voices, Amalia S. Levi’s (Bonn) paper was entitled ‘Asymmetrical Dependencies in Bridgetown, Barbados (17th -19thc.): Enslaved People in Sephardic Households.’ Her work centres on the experiences of the community of enslaved people in Sephardic Jewish households in early modern Bridgetown, Barbados, and interrogates archival processes that affect knowledge production about them.

Taynã Tagliati’s (Bonn) paper on `Asymmetrical Relations in Indigenous Amazonia: Towards a De-Westernisation of Strong Dependencies’ brought a refreshing perspective on the western thinking of inequality and dependency. The paper discussed how asymmetrical dependencies in the indigenous context might generate other kinds of sociocosmic relations that do not necessarily lead to inequality. Taynã argued that to grasp the phenomenon of asymmetrical dependency in all its nuances, it is necessary to de-westernise our concepts and imagination about society and (non) human relations.

Starting the second day off was Christine Mertens (Leiden), whose paper entitled ‘Clamoring for Control over Free Black Mobility in Virginia, 1782-1806’ shed light on the involvement of Virginia’s citizens and town officials in developing legislation targeting the movements of free Black people from the 1790s onwards.

Staying with the American South, Marcella Schute’s (Leiden) paper (title withheld) discussed how pro-slavery radicals in Louisiana in the late 1850s debated whether to reopen the transatlantic slave trade in the United States legally.

Bahar Bayraktaroğlu’s (Bonn) paper on `Dependency Between Slave Dealers and Slaves: A Case from Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Istanbul’ interrogated the concepts of agency and asymmetrical dependency by looking at the slave market and slave dealers in eighteenth-century Ottoman Istanbul.

In the last session, we heard from Camilla de Koning (Manchester) and Mary Aderonke Afolabi (Bonn). In this session, Camilla took us through her early findings and thoughts about her research project in her paper titled `Crown Engagement in Britain’s Emerging Empire, 1660-1775.’ She plans to examine the British Royal Family’s involvement in the expanding British colonial empire as individuals in her more comprehensive research project.

Mary’s paper entitled `(Re) presentations of Slavery, Servitude and Dependency in Selected Narratives of 19th Recaptured Africans’ closed off this fantastic seminar. In her paper, Mary aimed to uncover how slavery and asymmetrical dependency can be detected in texts, as opposed to actual and physical experiences of slavery.

This seminar was thus genuinely international, taking us through work focusing on comprehensive and wide-ranging geographical localities – Barbados, the Amazon, Trinidad, Britain, Virginia, Louisiana, Korea, Istanbul, and West Africa. It was interesting how all the papers, in their different aspects, incorporated the notion of agency. There was also a heightened interest in understanding formerly enslaved people and their communities by interrogating agency, asymmetrical dependency and several other aspects of their lives.

Jen pictured at the Hull-Bonn-Leiden seminar in November.

Seminar Report: Slavery and Servitude at the University of Leiden, 25-26 November 2021

Frederick Bricknell and Lance Parker

PhD students

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

f.j.bricknell-2021@hull.ac.uk (Twitter @fjbricknell)

l.parker-2021@hull.ac.uk (Twitter @Lj_daley)

On 25 and 26 November 2021, we attended a two-day virtual seminar on slavery and servitude across a range of chronological and geographic contexts, as part of a collaboration between the Wilberforce Institute, Leiden University Slavery Studies Association, and the Bonn University Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies. The seminar was organised and coordinated by Professor Damian Pargas, who was originally to host the participants at the University of Leiden. Sadly, the Netherlands entered a Covid-19 lockdown the week before the seminar was due to commence and the event was moved online. While we were disappointed not to be able to meet the other participants face-to-face, the seminar was nevertheless a highly successful and engaging experience which showcased the diversity and vitality of slavery studies as a discipline.

Leiden’s historic Pieterskerk, where the Puritan founders of the Plymouth Colony worshipped for more than a decade before departing for the New World in 1620. (Image: https://www.visitleiden.nl/en/locations/2974987658/pieterskerk)

The seminar was divided into five panels, each chaired by leading scholars such as Jeff Fynn-Paul, Oran Kennedy, Karwan Fatah-Black, Remco Breuker and the Wilberforce Institute’s own Trevor Burnard. Contributions from PhD candidates discussed patterns of enslavement and dependency in spatial and temporal contexts as diverse as early modern Moldavia and present-day Qatar, medieval Korea and nineteenth-century north Germany. On the first day of the seminar, as part of a panel on the complex relationship between slavery and freedom during the age of Atlantic revolutions, Lance presented some of his research on the Jamaican Maroons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His research explores cultural identities within Maroon communities and their relationship with the enslaved and the British within colonial Jamaica. The Maroons at first were runaways, fleeing plantation life, burning plantations and even capturing and freeing some of the enslaved. In response to the growing Maroon populations in Jamaica, the British went to war with them. However, the British were unable to put them down, so instead they made peace with them in 1739, on the condition that the Maroons put down slave rebellions and return runaways. Using both primary records from British officials and oral histories from the Maroons, Lance gets into the voices of the Maroons in order to understand how they saw themselves differently from the enslaved populations in Jamaica.   

This image was created in 1834 and is a depiction of the Anglo-Maroon war that concluded with the peace treaty of 1739. (Image: Illustration by Universal History Achieve, Getty Images, National Geographic.)

On the second morning of the seminar, Fred presented some of his research on the cultural and material roles of water in nineteenth-century Guyanese plantation slavery. Part of a joint project between the Wilberforce Institute and the new Centre for Water Cultures at the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, Fred’s PhD explores how the natural and man-made hydrology of South America’s Guiana coast influenced the development of slavery in the area and was in turn influenced by the planters’ desire to bend the environment to their own extractive ends. Using a cache of judicial records from the first few decades of the nineteenth century Fred sought to show how enslaved people negotiated their existence in this watery world, adapting to life in constant proximity to rivers, canals, and the Caribbean Sea in surprising and under-studied ways. Case studies included the desire of enslaved watermen on Guyana’s rivers to assert their position of relative privilege wherever they could; a free sailor’s struggle to regain his freedom after being deceived and enslaved; and the secret, dangerous rituals performed to secure the intercession of a powerful water-spirit.

A nineteenth-century map revealing the extent of hydrological infrastructure in the British colony of Demerara on the northern coast of South America. A contemporary observer described each plantation as ‘a complete island within itself, and dammed on all sides’ (Image: Detail from Alexander Gordon, ‘Plan of the Government Lands in the Colony of Demerara’, 1823, The National Archives, MR 1/941)

In spite of the broad range of topics discussed at the conference, spanning the entire globe and over six hundred years of history, several major themes emerged. These included a more complicated relationship between the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ than the simple binary to which they are often reduced, with an array of subtle distinctions, hierarchies, and sub-categories instead suggesting a continuum of constant negotiation between the two. In addition, consistent areas of focus between the papers included the ‘veil’ cast over the legacy of slavery in superficially non-slaveholding polities like eighteenth-century Hamburg and Bremen, and the role of water in both micro- and macrohistorical perspective as both a conduit for symbolic/religious meanings and the basis of vast continental empires.

We are both extremely grateful for the opportunity to present and receive feedback on our work in such a collegiate environment, and would like to extend our thanks to Damian Pargas for organising the seminar as well as to all of the other participants and panel chairs for enabling such productive discussions.