The history of slavery resonates through the city

Utrecht was long thought to have no colonial history, Nancy Jouwe claims. The book that she published last year, ‘Slavernij en de stad Utrecht’ puts an end to that idea. In her fellowship at HKU, she wants students and lecturers to read the city as an archive, feeling the connection with the history of slavery and its impact on the present. ‘This past is owned by the city; it belongs to everyone’.

The history of slavery resonates through the city

When Jouwe and her co-authors published their book in June 2021, the outcomes surprised many. ‘Since Utrecht is not a city by the sea, people thought it was never much involved in slavery. That is really not the case.’ The research was mainly received very willingly, which was not without its backlash. This February, the mayor of Utrecht, Sharon Dijksma, issued a public apology for the role that Utrecht had in slavery.

A jewel in the crown of Jouwe’s work, one would think. Yet she doesn’t see it like that. ‘Although it’s nice that the book is garnering so much attention right now, this wasn’t the real purpose.’ The current attention for the subject was almost non-existent ten years ago, when she became curator for an arts project about slavery. ‘Nobody in the cultural sector of Utrecht was concerned with it. A colleague of mine checked with a museum in Utrecht whether their collection included any works related to the theme, but they responded that there were no paintings with slave ships or chains in their collection.’

Catching up

And yet the connections to the colonial past can actually be seen in so many ways, states Jouwe. One example is the building where the AG (‘Academy Gallery’) of HKU now resides, where enslaved servants from South-East Asia once lived and worked. Multiple premises of Utrecht University were once the homes of slave traders. ‘It is locked into our society. You can notice this in multiple ways. This history has been kept quiet for long. Look at the national canon for history education, for instance: which events should be taught? Why did it take so long before Anton de Kom was added to the canon? And many persistent misconceptions have emerged. The arts education is still mostly Eurocentric. As if knowledge about art and arts practices are a strictly Western thing. And how can you feel safe in an institute as a person of colour?’ Racial ideas that are still present today, originate from that time.’

Jouwe notices a knowledge gap in our history of slavery, and about how this still resonates in current times. ‘But this is slowly catching up.’ Jouwe is contributing to this herself. For example, with the themed walks on slavery in Utrecht that she facilitates with a team of tour guides. ‘We also did this during Keti Koti on 1 July with HKU students. The history can be clearly seen in the city. You can read it like an archive.’

Photo credit: Anne van Gelder


The goal of Jouwe’s HKU fellowship is threefold, she explains. Firstly, students and lecturers can pick up knowledge of colonial history, so they can increase accountability and their connection to it. Secondly, we must abandon the idea that slavery is only relevant to the Afro-Caribbean population and others have nothing to do with it. And lastly: students and lecturers must be able to work with it.

Jouwe hopes that there will be more art projects based on the colonial history. ‘There are so many untold stories to be unveiled, so many connections to be drawn.’ She too will be doing her part. After several lectures to master students of Fine Art, where she is currently teaching, her fellowship will kick off in November. ‘I am really looking forward to get to work with the students. I am the kind of person who likes to cooperate, so I’m eager to get multiple parties involved. A while ago, I spoke at The Roadmap to Equality in the Arts in the Netherlands; a conference at ArtEZ. Such in-depth reflections are very useful and hopefully we can organise similar initiatives in this fellowship.’