Since the anti-racism protests in 2020, many municipalities and financial institutions have commissioned investigations into their history of slavery. The Dutch central bank and ABN Amro published the results of their research this year. Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht also preceded ING.
The investigation by ING aims to clarify the past of Barings Bank, a famous British bank that came into the hands of the Dutch in 1995. ING paid 1.8 billion guilders to the bankrupt bank, thereby obtaining a position in the City of London and Asia. The fact that the Dutch also got a bleak past as a gift was not an important factor in the 1990s.
Founded in 1762, Barings quickly grew into one of the world’s largest financial institutions. There are strong suspicions that the bank owes its rapid growth to slavery. The company is said to have loaned money to plantation owners to purchase slaves. They are also said to trade in sugar and coffee, products produced by slaves. In a few cases, the bank itself owned slave plantations.
The PhD program lasts for three years and is paid for by ING. A PhD candidate will have unlimited access to the London Barings Archive, which is managed by ING. Professor Manuel Barquia (University of Leeds), who will be supervising the PhD student, has high hopes for the research. “It’s not a question of whether Barings was involved in slavery, but to what extent.”
The university still has to search for a suitable PhD candidate. Leeds will start searching for candidates from May. They must have a master’s degree, just as they have an understanding of slavery and economics. The university stipulated that it could also select a candidate from outside Europe, even if they paid more tuition fees and thus cost ING more money. Barcia: But other than that it would be difficult to get candidates from Asia, Africa or Latin America. Fair and thorough, this is the only correct way.
Previous comparative studies were conducted by experienced academics, often in groups. ING is the first Dutch institution to conduct such research by a PhD student. However, Dutch slavery researchers have no objection to the Ph.D. Karawan Fateh Black (Leiden University) commends the fact that such a study is “three years in duration”. Pepijn Brandon (Free University) also talks about “appropriate means”, because a doctoral candidate can “browse archive documents for five months, only to find out that you have to go to another archive”.
Question marks about the approach
But it is precisely this approach in the UK that is called into question. Historian Nicholas Draper is the former director of the Center for Research on the Legacies of British Slavery at University College London. No British examples of extensive slavery research by a PhD student are known. So Draper describes the decision as a “safe option” for a doctoral student.
Draper: “For big organizations, photography is important, they like to keep control of that.” Therefore, the researcher cautioned against interference from clients such as ING. How much formal and informal freedom does the student have to decide for themselves what is published? Such a student at the beginning of his academic career.
Professor Barkia stresses that this fear is unfounded. I have been very clear: If ING intends to interfere with the investigation, there is no need for me to be a part of it. The bank pays, but otherwise, they take a step back and have to wait. And if they don’t stick to it, I’ll stop. The study is scheduled to begin in October 2022 and final results are expected within three years.
Investigations into slavery are still in full swing in many Dutch municipalities – including The Hague, Groningen, Haarlem and Flesingen. The outcome of a national inquiry into the history of slavery is expected in 2023.
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