17-20 December 2006, Cape Town: International Conference. Call for Papers

Contingent Lives: Social Identity and Material Culture in the VOC world

n international conference on the social world of the VOC will be held in Cape Town from 17-20 December 2006. The conference will bring together a group of scholars working on social identity and material culture in the VOC world, with focused discussion based on selected papers submitted and read in advance.

See also for up-to-the-minute information.

The conference is organized under the aegis of a joint University of Cape Town – University of the Western Cape research project entitled Construction of social identities in VOC Cape Town. The researchers connected to the project include social historians, historical archaeologists, museum curators and material culture experts. They seek to understand the ways in which the highly diverse and fluctuating population of the Cape Town port settlement (especially the lower social ranks of soldiers, sailors, slaves and convicts) performed and perceived their social roles and personal identities. The conference will also mark the completion of a two-year transcription project of VOC household inventories at the Cape Archives (TEPC). These transcriptions will be hosted on the TANAP website of the Nationaal Archief in The Netherlands from February 2006 on.

In the past few years important new research has emerged on material culture and social identity in the Cape Colony under the rule of the Dutch East India Company (1652-1795). However such work has taken place in relative isolation from scholarship on the Netherlands and on Asiatic regions under VOC control and influence. A key aim of the conference is thus to forge new links between South African, Asian and Dutch scholars working in these fields and to make historical comparisons and connections between Northern Europe, the Cape and the Dutch Indian Ocean world.

The edited conference proceedings will be produced in mid-2007 and we will actively seek partnerships with academic publishers in the Netherlands and elsewhere to ensure that they are widely distributed.


he following themes and topics have been identified. Papers on any of these or on related issues are invited. The focus will be on the 17th and 18th century European regions from which VOC employees originated, the Cape and VOC Indian Ocean world.

  • Approaches to Material Culture and Identity

What are the latest approaches to the study of material culture and social identity in the 17th and 18th centuries? How have archival sources such as household inventories, court records and private papers been used in the past and how may they be used in the future? How might the institutional and linguistic contexts in which these sources were produced have influenced their nature? What kinds of institutional context existed in the Netherlands and in the VOC world which conditioned the nature of these kinds of sources? How might the Cape household inventories be used by Dutch and other VOC scholars? What alternative insights may be obtained from extant visual and material sources?

  • Acculturation and Material Culture

How did the production, commodification and circulation of goods reflect and shape social identities? What was the influence of inheritance and family structure in the Netherlands (and other European countries from which the employees came) and its VOC colonies? To what extent was North European material culture transplanted, modified or reworked in the Cape and Asia? To what extent did the material culture of the VOC world affect the Netherlands? Did new cultural forms result?

  • Mentalité and Identity

How were social identities imagined, performed and articulated in the Netherlands and the VOC world? What role was played by, for example, religious belief, food, drink, work and leisure, emotional and sexual attachments, ceremony and ritual? To what extent were there distinctions between public and private identities? Can one speak of the existence of subcultures in the VOC world? What role was played by gender and sexuality? What role did ethnicity play in the Cape and Asia? How did the existence of slavery and of the presence of indigenous people in the VOC settlements affect the ways in which people viewed each other? How were these expressed in language and discourse and in oral, visual, material and written texts?

  • Place, Space and Identity

How did the organisation of public and private space express and/or modify existing or desired identities? How did the spatial layout of urban and rural settlements and of household interiors change in the course of these centuries and why? To what extent did Dutch/North European spatial patterns transfer to the Cape and Asia?

Conference Organisation

he conference will be held over 4 days and will include visits to sites of historical and social significance in the Cape Town region.

The conference fee is R500 (those in salaried employment) and R100 for students. Limited funding is available for travel and accommodation to assist those who are unable to raise funds from their home institutions or research bodies. If you are in this position, please indicate your required budget by 28 February 2006 at the latest. We regret that we cannot guarantee financial support and will give preference to young scholars, those from Asia and those without institutional affiliation.

Please send a 1 page C.V. and the title and brief abstract (approx. 500 words) of your proposed paper to: by 30 March 2006.

Papers should be in English, and must be submitted by 30 October 2006. They will then be placed on the conference web site (open to conference delegates only) and delegates are required to read them in advance. Since the purpose of the conference is to make comparisons and develop new ways of thinking, presenters at the conference will be asked to give only brief introductions to their papers, leaving most time for discussion.

We strongly advise you to book your flights to Cape Town as soon as possible because Christmas / Summer Vacation is the peak of the High Season for visiting the Cape. The major carriers from Europe are KLM, British Airways and South African Airways.

We much look forward to welcoming you to Cape Town.

Dr Antonia Malan (Historical Archaeology Research Group, University of Cape Town and Manager of TEPC Transcription Project)

Ms Lalou Meltzer (Head of Research, Social History Division, IZIKO Museum, Curator of Democracy X exhibition, Cape Town Castle)

Dr Sue Newton-King (History Department, University of the Western Cape, Social Identities Research Group Co-investigator)

Mr Deon Viljoen (Specialist in 18th century material culture relating to the European contact with South and South-east Asia, and the Cape of Good Hope).

Prof Nigel Worden (Historical Studies Department, University of Cape Town and Social Identities Research Group Leader)

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