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The Fringes of Enlightenment: Colonialism and Society in Asia, 1780-1870


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


Enlightenment and colonialism are strange bedfellows. Enlightenment scholars tend to emphasize that 18th century intellectuals such as l’Abbé Raynal were critical of the colonial empires and slavery, while critical historians of colonial empires in their turn point at the problematic role that the Enlightenment played in the creation of stereotypical knowledge on local societies. In the latter view the Enlightened emphasis on progress and its blueprints for civilizational development resulted in influential images of the “lazy native” and “oriental despots”. This stereotypical and hierarchical understanding of non-European peoples and societies was instrumental to the nineteenth century colonial states, and its excesses are well known.
The Dutch empire is still somewhat overlooked in these debates. Therefore, this course picks up the expanding literature on Enlightenment and empire and seeks to pinpoint processes of stereotyping and knowledge formation within Dutch colonialism in Asia. The focus is on colonial encounters in practice and their bureaucratic afterlife, and its connection to the enlightened intellectual debates. Together we will mine Dutch colonial sources that were produced in various regions in Asia, to locate the fringes of Enlightenment in Dutch colonialism in the last part of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;
  2. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;
  3. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  4. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  5. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;
  6. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;
  7. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
  8. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
  9. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;
  10. (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subtracks as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    -in the specialisation Colonial and Global History: how global (political, socio-economic, and cultural) connections interact with regional processes of identity and state formation; hence insight in cross-cultural processes (including the infrastructure of shipping and other modes of communication) that affect regions across the world such as imperialism, colonisation, islamisation, modernisation and globalisation (in particular during the period 1200-1940);
    -in the subtrack Maritime History also: the development of maritime history from the 16th century onwards; insight into recent issues in the field.
    -in the subtrack Postcolonial and Heritage Studies also: the history and politics of cultural knowledge production and heritage formation (including archives) in colonial and postcolonial situations, at local, transnational and global levels; insight into processes of cultural decolonization, questioning the nature, legacies and (dis-)connections of colonial power structures in present-day societies, regarding culture, heritage politics, Orientalism, museums, collecting etcetera. Understanding heritage in the broadest sense – including archives, museums, historical sites, objects, sites of memory, rituals – as the prism to study these problems.
  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subtrack in question, with a particular focus on the following:
  • in the specialisation Colonial and Global History: empirical research from a comparative and connective perspective;
    -in the subtrack Maritime History also: comparative research; archive research.
    -in the subtrack Postcolonial and Heritage Studies also: on postcolonial theory, critical heritage studies, and history of science approaches;

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  1. Will develop a thorough understanding on the complexities of colonialism, knowledge formation, stereotyping and the Enlightenment;
  2. Will be able to use the Dutch case to engage and develop their own standpoint in the current international debates on Enlightenment and empire;
  3. Will gain knowledge and practical experience in archival research and in integrating in their research a critical reading of different primary sources with secondary literature.
  4. (ResMA only – ResMA students are required to take a more interdisciplinary approach to the theme, by integrating theoretical insight(s) from philosophical, sociological and/or social-pyschological studies on the enlightenment, social cognition and stereotyping into their research.


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (ca 7500 words, based on research in primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 13-16

  • Entry test (week 3)
    measured learning objectives: 4, 8, 10-13

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-7, 9, 13-16


  • Written paper: 70 %

  • Oral presentation: 20 %

  • Entry test: 10 %

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.

Reading list

  • No literature needs to be studied beforehand. Literature that needs to be studied for the entry test (in week 3) will include, but is not limited to:

  • Devin Vartija, “Revisiting Enlightenment racial classification: time and the question of human diversity.” In: Intellectual History Review (2020). [DOI: 10.1080/17496977.2020.1794161]

  • Francisco Bethencourt, Racisms, from the Crusades to the Twentieth Century (Princeton, 2013) (chapters 2-4)

    • Ann Stoler, “Reasons Aside: Reflections on Enlightenment and Empire.” In: Graham Huggan (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies (Oxford, 2015)
  • Jonathan Israel, Democratic enlightenment: philosophy, revolution and human rights, 1750-1790. (Oxford, 2011) – Read part III: Europe and the remaking of the world.

  • Jeurgens K.J.P.F.M. , “Op zoek naar betrouwbare informatie. De commissarissen-generaal en de stichting van de koloniale staat, 1816-1819.” In: Lindblad Thomas, Schrikker Alicia (Eds.) Het Verre Gezicht. Politieke en culturele relaties tussen Nederland en Azië, Afrika en Amerika. (Franeker, 2011), 266-285.

  • A Campo, “Discourse without Discussion: Representations of Piracy in Colonial Indonesia 1816-25.” In: Journal of Southeast Asian studies. Vol 34, issue 2, 2003

Additional reading for the entry test and course will be announced in class.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available on the website.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. B. Verheijen