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The Fringes of Enlightenment: Colonialism and Society in Asia, 1750-1850


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.
There will be an Entry test for this seminar.


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 latters’ 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 by and large overlooked in these debates. Therefore, this course picks up the expanding literature on Enlightenment and empire and seeks to pinpoint early processes of stereotyping and knowledge formation within Dutch colonialism in Asia. The focus is on colonial encounters in practice and their bureaucratic afterlife, rather than on the enlightened intellectual métier an sich. Together we will mine Dutch East India Company (VOC) and Dutch colonial sources that were produced in various regions in Asia, to locate the fringes of Enlightenment in Dutch colonialism.

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

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations 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).
  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following:
    • in the specialisation Colonial and Global History: empirical research from a comparative and connective perspective.

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 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 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 sociological and/or social-pyschological studies on social cognition and stereotyping into their research.


The timetable is available on the MA History website.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours

  • Seminars: 26 hours

  • Practical work: 80 hours (including archival research)

  • Preparation seminars: 30 hours

  • Tutoring: 2 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 30 hours

  • Writing a research paper: 112 hours

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%
Entry test: 10%
Oral presentation: 20 %

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.


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


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Planning

  • Group communication

Reading list

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

  • Ann Stoler, Reasons Aside: Reflections on Enlightenment and Empire. In: Graham Huggan (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015

Assigned reading for the entry test and additional reading will be announced in class and/or Blackboard.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.