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Slavery: Discourse and representation in European and Caribbean Literature


Admission requirements

Not appliccable


When the black British author Zadie Smith visited Amsterdam, she remarked that she associated the canals and paintings of the Golden Age with the bloodmoney of the slave-trade. That this remark resonated like a shockwave through the audience is indicative of how little awareness there still is in the Netherlands about the intricate relation between historical Dutch culture and the slavery system.

The social and poltical force of literature is the possibility to create critical awareness of such painful issues in past and present. If the past can not be easily assimilated in our national or individual self-perception, literary narratives come into play to describe the unrepresentable.
In this course, we study how this works in literary texts that represent or discuss the practice and the memory of slavery. The reserch questions central to this course are:

● How have literary narratives contributed or undermined the existing image of of slavery in the Netherlands, in Europe and in Caribbean texts in any of the European languages? ● How is this literary and cultural representation tied in with the political and economic impact of Slavery? ● In what way (and up to what extent) has literature contributed to the cultural imaginary or cultural archive that still determines how we think about race and the (history of) European slavery in the Netherlands today?

During the first three seminars of this course, students familiarize themselves with the essential role the slavery system played in establishing European global dominance from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. We study key political and literary documents that bring into view how slavery aided the political and economic ascendancy of Europe, but we also study how this process was obfuscated by the European nations involved in this process.

The next six seminars take full advantage of the diverse backgrounds of students in an international classroom by addressing the representation of slavery in literature in French, English and Dutch, written both in Europe and the Caribbean. Approaching these texts from a decolonial perspective, we study how the intersection of racial, gendered, political and economic violence is represented in these texts.

The final three seminars offer the students three possible trajectories, all aimed at coming to terms with the lasting impact of the cultural representation of slavery on contemporary society and culture. Your final paper is on a topic in line with the chosen trajectory.

● A first trajectory allows participants to engage with non-fictional accounts, responses and critiques of (the representation and impact of) slavery (o.a. W.E.B. Dubois, Anton de Kom, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James and other decolonial theorists). ● A second trajectory allows students to engage with the specifically Dutch literary and historical representation of European slavery, deepening their understanding of historical texts that legitimated the European slavery system and texts that criticize or undermine it. ● A third trajectory, similar to the second, allows participants to engage in an analysis of French, German or British literary representations of European slavery in the Caribbean peninsula and its critique.

During these last seminars students represent the outcomes of their research trajectory and engage with each others’ individual research trajectories. The desired learning outcome will be one in which we are able to put the literary representation of slavery in a comparative (European and Caribbean) perspective while taking a decolonial approach.

Course objectives

By the end of this course students have achieved the following learning objectives:

● The student can explain in general terms what way and to what extent the slave trade system played a pivotal role in the political and economic ascendance of the European states between sixteenth and the nineteenth century ● The student is able to find and locate significant representations of slavery and (critique on) the slavery system in modern literary texts. ● The student is able to undertake a critical analysis of these texts and the way they represent the slavery system; the student is able to explain how this representation is still impacting our racial imaginary and/or cultural commemoration of slavery. ● The student is able to employ decolonial theory and historical insight to contextualize her/his reading of these literary texts. ● The student is able to convey these insights both in an oral presentation and a written paper. ● The student is able to engage in a constructive conversation with students who study the same topic in other nations and language (Dutch, English, French). ● The student practices with popularizing output.


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar 3 hours.

  • Excursion

Assessment method

  • Paper 50%
    Oral presentation and Research proposal: 10%
    Weekly assignments and participation: 30%, one of which is a popularisation exercise.

The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average. All grades have to exceed the 5.5

The resit consists of an extra chance at writing the paper if the first attempt is not adequate.

Reading list

The booktitles and / or syllabi to be used in the course, where it can be purchased and how this literature should be studied beforehand.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs



For questions related to the content of the course, please contact the lecturer, you can find their contact information by clicking on their name in the sidebar.

For questions regarding enrollment please contact the Education Administration Office Reuvensplaats
E-mail address Education Administration Office Reuvensplaats:

For questions regarding your studyprogress contact the Coordinator of Studies


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