Tag Archives: Colonial history

Remembering slavery

How to deal with major questions, problems and conflicts in history? How should one write about them as a blogger? Subjects such as the abuse of power, law and justice, the undeniable role of violence, wars, the exclusion of people from society, and the outright systematic persecution of people for whatever reason, cry out for probing questions and research from many perspectives. Here I have promised several times not to avoid such themes and problems. One of the reasons that my first posting of 2013 occurs only late in January is exactly devoting time to one of the subjects which cannot be excluded from legal history. In my country the abolition of slavery in Suriname in 1863 will be commemorated. In this post I will look at some publications and websites dealing both with slavery as a general subject and with the history and aftermath of slavery in Suriname. Until 1975 Suriname, situated between British and French Guyana, was a Dutch colony. I will not aim at any kind of exhaustive treatment of the abolition of slavery in this country.

Slavery and Suriname

The commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Suriname in the year 1863 has thus far in particular received attention on Dutch television in the NTR-VPRO series De slavernij [Slavery] broadcasted in 2011. The series centered around the search of the Dutch singer Roué Verveer for his ancestry. The very fact that background information was presented by a well-known Dutch anchorwoman was criticized by some people complaining she figured as a kind of all-knowing presenter high above the black singer who seemed only to ask questions which he could not answer himself. Whatever the value of this critique, in the book accompanying the series, De slavernij. Mensenhandel van de koloniale tijd tot nu [Slavery. Human traffic from colonial times until the present] (Amsterdam 2011) edited by Carla Boos and a team of scholars, his quest for the history of his family is barely touched upon.

The website of the series presents a very well equipped nutshell guide to genealogical research for Surinam ancestors. In fact it is a model of its kind, and I have searched in vain for a similar comprehensive treatment of the subject at other websites. Surely, the Dutch Nationaal Archief offers a guide to its own online databases concerning slavery in Suriname, even in English. It is one thing to have access to digitized manumission and emancipation registers, but knowing how to use them is a prerequisite dealt with very clearly at the TV series website. A possible complaint about the website is much more a request, the need for translation of the Dutch version into English and Papiamento. The book by Carla Boos offers a very readable and lavishly illustrated introduction to the history of slavery in general, the slave trade in Africa, the Dutch Atlantic slave trade, slavery in Suriname and its living memory. The choice of documents written by all kind of people to tell stories from inside is excellent. The only things missing are a good overview of the images, and registers for subjects and names.

On a website for Dutch history on television and radio you can find several earlier items in a dossier on slavery, for example on the slave trade between Vlissingen (Flushing) in Zeeland, the Dutch fortress Elmina in Ghana, and Tobago in the Caribbean. Some digitized books about the history of Suriname can be found in the project Early Dutch Books Online (EDBO) which focuses on the period 1780-1800. In its digital collection Suriname 1599-1975 the library of the University of Amsterdam has digitized several old maps of Suriname and a small number of books, including the Dutch translation of Johan Gabriel Stedman’s book about his travels. You can also view an abridged version of this translation on a separate website – using Shockwave – but you can use more easily the complete version at EDBO. In the Digital Library for Dutch Literature you can find not only novels concerning Suriname and books in Dutch by authors from Suriname, but also the text of several editions of the Surinaamsche Almanak from 1820 onwards. This yearbook contains for example lists of plantations, their locations, owners and administrators. Documentation about the sea voyages made by slaves and their traders can be found in particular in the online database concerning the Trans-Atlantic slave trade of Emory University.

Slave traders and slaves

Slave traders and slaves – image from http://www.ninsee.nl

The activities for this year’s commemoration of the abolition of slavery can be followed most easily using the website of the NinSee in Amsterdam, the Dutch central institute for the study of the Dutch slavery past and heritage. The NinSee publishes studies and source editions in its own publication series. However, in my opinion it is a failure this website offers its information only in Dutch. If I have learned just one thing from the 2011 tv series it is exactly you cannot isolate the history of slavery from general history. The selection of scholarly literature about Dutch and Atlantic slavery on the website does redress this imbalance a bit. The NinSee institute is housed almost next door to the municipal archive of AmsterdamDigitized old maps of Suriname are abundantly present on the website of the Dutch Royal Tropical Institute. At the Memory of the Netherlands portal for digitized collections concerning the Dutch cultural heritage you will find many thousand digitized objects related to Suriname from a number of Dutch collections. Among them are apart from the Royal Tropical Institute the Tropical Museum in Amsterdam – its main website can be viewed in seven languages, and the collection can be searched at a separate subdomain – and the Royal Netherlands Institute of South East Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden, with its own digital image library. Six Dutch ethnological museums work together for a portal website where you can search their collections, but you can still search online separately in the collections of the Museum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden or its library catalogue. Perhaps it is wise to mention here also the project Caribisch Erfgoed [Caribbean Heritage] for the digitization of photographs taken between 1886 and 1970 by the Brothers of Tilburg, a Catholic educational congregation long active in Suriname.

At the start of a commemoration year leading up to the first of July, the very day on which in 1863 the abolition of slavery in Suriname was formally proclaimed, it becomes increasingly clear for me how important it is to view this history from many perspectives. While reading about Suriname I had also on my desk Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial. Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2011). Last year I wrote a post about the Athenian democracy, and I am sure I will learn more about it when taking the role of slavery in ancient Greece into account. Learning about slavery also sheds light on the practice of commemorations in contemporary society. One of the commemorations I will surely write about here in 2013 is the bicentenary of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

A postscript

At the website of the Stichting Oud-Vaderlands Recht, the Foundation for the History of Old Dutch Law, Dutch readers can find an overview of exhibitions, symposia, recent publications and websites concerning Suriname and slavery.

Revisiting Frankfurt am Main

Logo Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

One of the earliest posts on my blog in 2009 was devoted to the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main. Frankfurt has featured here in many posts, for example in a post on a guided tour to the criminal history of the capital of Rheinland-Hessen and in the post on Savigny at 150 years. Many times I have referred here to the pivotal position of this German research institute in the field of legal history, because it is the best example of an institute showing the variety of legal history, which almost leads you to prefer the plural expression legal histories. When I visited this week the website of the Frankfurt institute I found many new things which merit attention in a new post. The new building of the institute in Frankfurt’s West End gets close to completion, but it is really worthwhile to have a look at its activities before the move from the Hausener Weg to the new location near the inner city.

From strength to strength

At the moment I wrote the caption for this paragraph I wondered whether the MPI at Frankfurt am Main has indeed a motto of its own, but this one could very well play this role! In the face of many other fields of science and law for which the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft has created institutes it is most reassuring that legal history, too, has got its place since many years. The research programs of the MPG’s institutes are comparable to any other research institute, but the main goals and aims are reviewed by the central board in Munich through the years, with as a possible consequence closure or radical change.

One of the changes has been a shift of focus from the European Middle Ages to other periods and regions. Countries in the South-East of Europe and Latin America are new targets of research. Luckily materials brought together at the MPI such as a large collection of microfilms of medieval manuscripts are still safely in place. Quite recently the history of the former Arbeitsgruppe Legistik has been honoured with the launch of a digital version of the Verzeichnis der Handschriften zum römischen Recht bis 1600 (4 vol., Frankfurt am Main 1972) in the database Manuscripta Juridica. The original edition itself was basically a print made by Gero Dolezalek and Hans van de Wouw with their pioneering computer program of information concerning manuscripts in libraries worldwide containing texts of and commentaries on Roman law. The online version will be supplemented with data concerning manuscripts with canon law texts. Recht im ersten Jahrtausend is a new subseries of the MPI in the main series Studien zur europäischen Rechtsgeschichte. The recent publication of Andreas Thier’s study Hierarchie und Autonomie. Regelungstraditionen der Bischofsbestellung in der Geschichte des kirchlichen Wahlrechts bis 1140 (Frankfurt am Main, 2011), on episcopal elections and medieval ecclesiastical law, shows that early European legal history is not neglected.

The library of the Frankfurt MPI is really the core and the heart of the institute. Its digital library testifies to its rich holdings by steady enlargements. To the first section with digitized German law journals between 1800 and 1918 a second section has been added this year with journals between 1703 and 1830. At present you can view 31 journals, some two hundred (!) more will be added. You will not wonder that these projects dominate the field of legal history until now, and they have a special place in an earlier post on digitized journals and legal history.

The Virtueller Raum Reichsrecht is dedicated to digitized works stemming from the German Holy Roman Empire. A much larger collection is DRQEdit with digital editions of German-language legal works, a project in cooperation with the Academy of Sciences in Heidelberg and the University of Cologne. Legal literature from Germany, Switzerland and Austria concerning private law printed during the nineteenth century is another subject for a separate digital library, with more than 4,000 books. The digital library for dissertations from the Holy Roman Empire between 1600 and 1800 contains a number of digitized versions of them, but is mainly concerned with presenting a detailed description of some 73,000 dissertations. By now it should be no surprise the institute at Frankfurt participates with three other institutes of the MPG in the Digitization Lifecycle project for best practices and innovation in the field of digitization. It is only fair to indicate that for reasons of copyright the number of accessible digitized books in the field of Byzantine law is unfortunately very restricted. The overview of manuscripts with legal texts from Byzantium offers here some solace. By the way, a number of pages of the MPI website are available both in German and English.

The holdings of the library have been enriched by the collections of several scholars in the field of legal history. Among recent accessions is the library of Sten Gagnér (1921-2000) with 10,000 volumes and many offprints. It goes without mention the library offers to its visitors access to a number of subscribed databases and the MPG’s own digital library and licensed online journals. It is often very sensible to look for books on a particular subject first in the library catalogue of the MPI. This will bring you often to literature you had not yet spotted at all. The only sections recently removed from the website of the MPI – or hopefully just temporarily missing – are the links section and the selection of portals for legal history.

In June 2012 the Max Planck Legal Studies Network has been launched in which ten legal institutes combine forces. One of the strengths of the Frankfurt MPI has always been the support of young scholars. With the University of Frankfurt the MPI cooperates in a Graduiertenkolleg, a graduate school for comparative legal history. Every year the MPI organizes a summer school and several other courses for young scholars. The Graduiertenschule Lateinamerika is organized in cooperation with institutions in Argentina and Brazil. For reasons of space I skip other initiatives for young scholars, apart from the financial support for graduates. A link with contemporary law is provided by the new LOEWE center of excellence Aussergerichtliche und gerichtliche Konfliktlösung, a three-year project extrajudicial and judicial conflict solution, a theme dear to my Rotterdam supervisor Chris ten Raa who organized already in the nineties an international research project on the history of mediation and conciliation.

The journal Rg-Rechtsgeschichte scarcely needs introduction as the successor to Ius Commune (1967-2001) which is in its entirety accessible online in the PDF format, and also to the Rechtshistorisches Journal with an often amusing different slant on and sometimes scathing view of the practice of legal history. It is a relief drawings are again admitted to the pages of Rg-Rechtsgeschichte!

More institutions in Frankfurt

Paulskirche, Frankfurt am Main

The Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main, the location of the Nationalversammlung in 1848

I would like to end this post with a brief look at institutions of the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. The law faculty at Frankfurt is certainly not neglectable, and in particular not the Institut für Rechtsgeschichte. The university library, too, is worth visiting. 1848-Flugschriften im Netz is the digital collection with pamphlets on the German revolution of 1848. Compact Memory is a project with over 100 digitized 19th and 20th century Jewish journals from Germany, to mention only one of the digital collections concerning Jewish history and heritage. Legal texts are present among the more than 400 digitized medieval manuscripts. I pick at random from the special collections the Internet Library Subsaharan Africa, a major portal for African studies, the Flugschriftensammlung Gustav Freytag and the Sammlung Deutscher Drucke 1801-1870, the central collection of German imprints from this period. Colonial history is the focus of the Bildarchiv, the digital image collection of the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft, digitized in cooperation with the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft, Dresden. The university library holds also the former collection of the Bibliothek der Bundesversammlung (1816-1866). The volumes of the inventory by Johann Conradin Beyerbach of Frankfurt city ordinances, Sammlung der Verordnungen der Reichsstadt Frankfurt (11 vol., Frankfurt am Main 1798-1818), have been digitized, and the university library has several thousands of these ordinances.

Let’s finish with four other institutions: the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek with the German Exilarchiv 1933-1945 focuses on bibliographical projects and communication. The museums in Frankfurt have created the society for Frankfurter Museumsbibliotheken. For legal history the Institut für Stadtgeschichte, too, is one of the libraries with relevant holdings. The history of criminals and punishments comes into view at the Kriminalmuseum Frankfurt am Main.

You might get tempted to think I forget to mention scholars doing research and teaching in Frankfurt. I am very well aware they make the MPI and the other institutions briefly touched upon here into places with a vibrant scholarly life. Many of these scholars do deserve laurels. The very least to do is pointing to two deceased scholars, Helmut Coing, the founder of the Frankfurt MPI for European Legal History, and Marie-Theres Fögen, also many years at the head of this institute. In my experience the scholars in the service of the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte do their best to honour their memory. All who visit the institute and benefit from its services should follow and debate the standards they set, for constructive debate about the fundamental questions, practices and prejudices of legal history is also among the inheritance they left to future generations.