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Slavernij als topos en praktijk in het werk van Hendrik Conscience (1812-1883)

  • Kevin Absillis Universiteit Antwerpen




In the substantial oeuvre of the Belgian novelist Hendrik Conscience (1812-1883) Batavia (1858) is the only text which engages more thoroughly in the topic of slavery and colonialism. For that reason, Conscience’s somewhat forgotten novel about the Dutch conquest of Java in the early 17thcentury recently attracted new scholarly interest. While this new interest in itself is more than welcome, as studies on colonial representations in 19thcentury Flemish literature still run scarce, it also seems to be driven by the urge to expose Conscience’s views as imperialistic, racist and unsensitive to the atrocities of slavery. This article argues that these moral reckonings run the risk of obscuring the complexities of literary texts and how they functioned at their time of writing. Whereas Batavia clearly does not invite the reader’s dissent with European colonialism, it contains abolitionist tendencies hitherto unnoticed. The text was influenced by slave narratives and quite possibly other abolitionist propaganda, and it even shows a deep affinity with the famous antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was published in 1852 in the United States and circulated widely in Belgium from early 1853 onwards. This article exposes these abolitionist tendencies by presenting a close reading of Conscience’s text and also by drawing upon wide variety of historical and book historical sources.