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Slavery and the Human Person


!! This course is an Honours Class and therefore only available for students of an honours college !!

Enrolling in this course is possible from 20 August until 10 September. Honours students will be informed by e-mail.


Slavery has been part of the human condition throughout history and throughout the world. Rather than on numbers or the forms of exploitation, this course reflects on the personal experience of slavery. By what means – social, legal, economical and other – did slaves salvage personality and reclaim their personhood?

Most of history has been marked by the enslavement of other people. In antiquity, slavery was practiced by every major civilization, including Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Persians, Egyptians and Jews. The institution was known in the pre-Columbian Americas and in African, Russian, Chinese and Indian kingdoms well before the age of discovery and the transatlantic slave trade. Even following abolition, pernicious forms of social and economic slavery have persisted. Slavery is not a thing of the past. According to the 2014 Global Slavery Index, almost 36 million people suffer a form of slavery today. Slavery is living history, an important part of the world’s common heritage that touches people’s lives and informs contemporary policy decisions.

Why is slavery so hard to eradicate? To merely focus on ‘dehumanization’ and the sheer numbers of chattel slavery is not very helpful in answering that question. By considering perspectives from historians, lawyers, philosophers and anthropologists, this course offers a deeper understanding of slave systems and their mechanisms of social control. Slaves were and remain human persons, who reclaimed personhood through resistance, collaboration, agency and manumission, while navigating the legal systems that threatened them and protected their status simultaneously.


  1. Wed. 14/10, 17:30-19:00. Introduction: comparative slavery on the basis of the “social death” thesis developed by Patterson (1982).

  2. Wed. 28/10, 17:30-19:00. The relations between capitalism and slavery, including “salt water slavery” and the slave trade.

  3. Wed. 4/11, 17:30-19:00. The slave perspective as known from slave-produced narratives including biographies, songs and fables.

  4. Wed. 11/11, 17:30-19:00. Examining “slaves on screen” in a lecture based on film fragments, introducing the theme of social responses to slavery.

  5. Wed. 18/11, 17:30-19:00. The transformative act of manumission as a social and legal performance.

  6. Wed. 25/11, 17:30-19:00. The legal position of slaves, including discussion of modern exploitative practices within the frame of corporate social responsibility

  7. Wed. 2/12, 17:30-19:00. The philosophy of slavery, including abolition.

  8. Wed. 13, 14 or 15/1, 17:30-19:00. Concluding workshop: presentation of findings to a panel of experts from LSSA (the Leiden Slavery Studies Association).


O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death. A Comparative Study, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1982.

A reader with further required reading will be made available through Blackboard.


Wednesday 14, 28 October, 4, 11, 18, 25 November, 2 (, 9) December; 17:30 – 19:00 hrs
13, 14 or 15 January: workshop (exact date to be announced)


De Oude Sterrewacht / Old Observatory, room C0.06, Sterrenwachtlaan 11, Leiden

Assessment method

Group paper and final presentation

Maximum number of students



Enrolling in this course is possible from 20 August until 10 September via this link .


Prof. mr. E. Koops