For best experience please turn on javascript and use a modern browser!
You are using a browser that is no longer supported by Microsoft. Please upgrade your browser. The site may not present itself correctly if you continue browsing.
Roman law is replete with provisions about enslaved people, and those laws were also used later on. Jacob Giltaij is researching this theme of exclusion over the next 5 years with an NWO grant. 'The exclusion of groups of people resonates to this day'.

Why were you eager to dive into this topic?

'I got the idea through my students. We teach them that Roman law gets picked up in the Middle Ages and is then suddenly applied again in a new context. But in the Middle Ages there weren't really enslaved people in Europe, so what happens to the texts about that group of people?'

Weren't those laws just ignored?

'It is interesting to see what happened to that law in practice. Imagine: a ship with a captain from Zierikzee arrives in a colony and is instructed to introduce Roman law. But does such a captain know how this law works? Is the instruction sufficient? My hypothesis is that the law around enslaved people was also applied over time to other categories of people, such as natives, prisoners of war and servants. I'm going to research how that was done in practice in Surinam, Curaçao, Virginia and Chile.’

Why exactly was Roman law used in other societies?

'It was mainly a pragmatic consideration: Roman law was already there. It also had authority as an ancient text and it was good at creating categories of people outside of citizenship. They could just as easily have invented new law around enslaved people in the colonies, but they usually didn't. I think the application of Roman law in the colonies did eventually create a new law. It created a colonial version of concepts like "property" and "tort."'

Copyright: Jacob Giltaij
Even now, people say things like "I don't feel like a full citizen"

What do you hope the study of the history of enslaved people will reveal?

'The idea is still that enslaved people were excluded from the law. I don't think that's the case. I think by necessity laws were created around enslaved people – to protect them to some extend as well. But they were also denied rights when it was more beneficial to other groups of people. This exclusion resonates to this day. Law played a big role here.’

In what ways is that visible?

'With the abolition of slavery, inequality does not immediately disappear from society. Slavery in Suriname, for example, was abolished in 1863. But even though enslaved people should have been full citizens after that, that was not the case in practice. Notoriously, they still had to continue working unpaid on the plantations for 10 years. Officially there is equality, but through all kinds of ways this inequality is maintained. You also see it in people’s mentality. Even now, people say things like "I don't feel like a full citizen". This can be traced back to how people were treated in the colonies. These sentiments have a long history, and my research also shows that.’