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Meet the Expert: Gert Oostindie

The End of an Era

On January 1st 2022, the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) and Leiden University will formally say goodbye to retiring prof. dr. Gert Oostindie. A prominent figure in the study of slavery and (post)colonial history in the Netherlands, prof. Oostindie is certainly not done researching and writing, yet looks forward to getting to control his own agenda.

When prof. Oostindie first arrived at the KITLV in 1983, having only visited Leiden once before, he certainly did not expect to stay there for the next 38 years. To the question why he decided to stay for so long after not planning on doing so, he had a clear and concise answer: the freedom. “At the KITLV, I always had the freedom to research what I wanted to and what was important at the time.” Prof. Oostindie gradually moved from more specific research on the Caribbean, among other places, to slavery and decolonization on a much broader scale, eventually including the colonial and postcolonial history of the Netherlands. “Often times, I did not start a project with a lot of expertise ready; I learned it all along the way. Give me the opportunity, and I will study everything there is about a subject. That’s what made the research most exciting.”

When prof. Oostindie became director at the KITLV in 2000, giving people this same freedom was key to his leadership style. He wanted others to be able to make their own choices without many restrictions, just like he did. The role of director, however, never stopped prof. Oostindie from continuing to do on the ground research and documenting it. He wrote many of his books while being director at the KITLV and professor at Leiden University, and managed to not let his role as a leader overshadow his passion for doing research.

Throughout the past years, prof. Oostindie’s increasingly great expertise has certainly not stayed under the radar. He frequently appears in well-known media as an expert on the topics of colonialism and slavery, most recently with a focus on their meaning in the Netherlands. “The media attention can certainly be a challenge”, prof. Oostindie said. “But life without challenges isn’t fun. I think it is important to share what you do, but I try to refrain from always giving my opinion. Our claim to fame as historians is that we present accurate information and state the facts, not give out moral statements.”

Leaving the KITLV and Leiden University does not mean we will no longer be able to read new books from prof. Oostindie. He already has three projects set for the year 2022, and is not planning on fully removing himself from the researching and writing scene, although he looks forward to getting to set his agenda himself from now on. To the final question if there was anything else he would like to mention, prof. Oostindie had an answer right away: LeidenGlobal! “I loved doing many things throughout my time here in Leiden, and being the chairperson of the executive board at LeidenGlobal was definitely one of them.”

At his valedictory speech on December 17th, Gert Oostindie received the Dutch distinction of 'Officier in de Orde van Oranje-Nassau'. 

Interview by LeidenGlobal intern Lisa van der Geest
(November 2021)

 

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>> Photo on the right is taken by Jiri Buller