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A report from Bonn University Seminar on Slavery, Servitude and Extreme Dependency

On 30 and 31 October 2023, the third edition of the International PhD Seminar on Slavery, Servitude & Extreme Dependency organised by the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies, the Wilberforce Institute and the Leiden Slavery Studies Association took place in Bonn, Germany. This is the result of a growing collaboration between these three European institutions that aims to create spaces for reflection and discussion about historical and modern forms of slavery and asymmetrical dependencies. Among the attendants were Fred Bricknell from the University of Hull's Wilberforce Institute and Energy and Environment Institute, and Louise Salaün from Sorbonne Université in Paris, whose PhD is being co-supervised by Wilberforce Institute director Prof. Trevor Burnard. Fred and Louise reflect on their experiences of the Seminar in this blog.

This year twelve PhD researchers from German, Dutch, English, Belgian, Romanian, and Italian universities, including Fred, had the opportunity to present and discuss their pre-circulated papers. This edition brought together a diverse range of presentations about various forms of slavery and dependency (including panarrying, debt slavery, and indentured work), periods (from Middle Ages to the twentieth century) and spaces (the African coasts, the American Dutch Colonies, Barbados, Moldavia, the Black Sea, the Arabian Peninsula and South-East Asia). Each 15-minute presentation was followed by 30 minutes of rich discussions that began with comments from the senior academics Profs. Trevor Burnard, Stephan Conermann, and Damian Pargas, and continued with questions from the other participants.

The question-and-answer sessions and the discussions during coffee break, lunch and dinner allowed each participant to put their research into perspective and question the concepts and the methods they are accustomed to use. Each paper questioned in some way the categorizations of the various forms of asymmetrical dependency, the discourses about slavery and dependency used by a wide range of actors and the different strategies to find the traces left by enslaved and dependent people in the archives. This PhD doctoral seminar was also a good opportunity to discuss the challenges we can face as European PhD researchers. The one-hour discussion about “How to Survive a PhD?” offered each participant a time to share their questions and doubts and to receive some useful advice from senior professors, postdoctoral researchers, and fellow PhD students. The seminar closed with a joint book launch by Damian Pargas and Trevor Bernard. Trevor’s new book, Writing the History of Global Slavery, is published by Cambridge University Press. 

Trevor Burnard - Director, Wilberforce Institute at the Bonn Seminar

Fred’s paper and presentation formed part of a new project he has been working on alongside his PhD research, exploring the transition from slavery to post-emancipation labour regimes in the nineteenth-century British empire. Between 1838 and 1920, millions of people left the Indian subcontinent, China, West Africa, South-East Asia and Europe to work in other parts of the world and the descendants of indentured workers now live in hundreds of countries around the globe. Fred has examined the process by which the migration of workers from Singapore and the Coromandel coast to Mauritius was transformed into a global labour system, largely through the personal networks of wealthy former enslavers such as the Liverpool merchant John Gladstone.

Planters openly admitted that they were seeking to quash efforts at collective bargaining and depress wages in order to prevent formerly enslaved people from establishing communities outside the plantation complex. Faced with strong public suspicion in Britain from the still well-organised anti-slavery movement, and a government eager to avoid the appearance of complicity in resurrecting the slave trade, planters sought to reframe indenture within the new imperial paradigm of ‘free labour’. They compared indentured plantation workers to merchant sailors or Swiss mercenaries, groups whose juridical freedom was beyond question but who could nevertheless be subjected to harsh discipline. They sought to publicly portray the target populations of the indenture system as inert and pliable workers in contrast to the dangerously ‘combining’ former slaves. Finally, they tried to claim a shared imperial identity which held that, as subjects of a common crown, Indian labourers were entitled to the same freedom to choose where in the empire to work as British labourers were. These arguments were undermined by the refusal of the imperial government to sanction the introduction of military-style corporal punishment; proof of the non-pliability of indentured labourers in the form of their strenuous protests against abuse, wage theft and deceptive contracts; and the fact that British labourers were themselves increasingly barred from exercising the ‘sacred rights’ of freely contracting their labour. However, the indenture system survived these contradictions to become one of the dominant forms of labour in the nineteenth-century world.

Several overarching themes emerged from the papers presented at the seminar, foremost among them the usefulness of strong or extreme asymmetrical dependency as an analytical concept for understanding the myriad ways in which human societies have created conditions of bondage and servitude throughout history; many of which do not at first appear to resemble what we commonly think of as ‘slavery’. Papers on contexts as diverse as the legal adoption of enslaved people in seventeenth-century Dutch Java, enslaved Roma convict miners in nineteenth-century Moldavia, and debt-bonded pearl divers in the twentieth-century Persian Gulf reinforced the need for a different analytical framework, given that slavery in the Atlantic world between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries can increasingly be seen as a historical outlier in terms of its racialisation of enslavement, its extreme violence and cruelty, and its level of mortality. Senses of identity and belonging, and especially the way that slavery and dependency are remembered and memorialised today, have also differed vastly across time and space. Overall, the seminar offered a fascinating insight into the research currently being conducted in the field, as well as an opportunity to meet and discuss key ideas and concepts with scholars from a wide range of backgrounds.


Our friends at the Bonn Centre for Dependency and Slavery Studies have also written a blog following the Bonn-Leiden-Hull Seminar. You can read the blog here.

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