The embodied absence of the past: transformative geographies of slavery heritage tourism

Adu-Ampong, Emmanuel


In an increasingly diverse society, the stories we tell about the past can bring us together or pull us apart. In the Netherlands, people of African descent embody a given past. Yet, the stories of slavery, colonialization and racism are often absent because they are considered as potentially contentious. This is the notion of the embodied absence of the past, exemplified for instance by the yearly polarising debates on Keti Koti and Zwarte Piet. This project focuses on how tourism transforms and narrates the past of slavery, specifically that between Ghana, Suriname and the Netherlands stemming from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The main question is: Which narratives emerge from the transformation of the shared slavery-related historical sites in Ghana, Suriname and the Netherlands into heritage tourism places?

Innovatively combining insights from cultural geography, tourism studies and heritage studies, this research develops the conceptual notion of the embodied absence of the past to examine how such transformations stimulate plural public memories and engagements that challenge established narratives about the past, identity and belonging. The empirical focus lies on Ghana (Elmina Castle and Fort Amsterdam), Suriname (Fort Zeelandia and Frederiksdorp Plantation) and the Netherlands (National Slavery Monument and Black Heritage Tours Amsterdam).

Underlined by an interpretive phenomenological approach, this research combines qualitative ethnographic methods – participant observation, interviewing, visual and document analysis – for data collection and analysis. The study highlights tourism’s transformative role in raising awareness of slavery heritage and informs policy debates on how to deal with places of remembrance in contemporary society. These are key pillars of the “Living History” thematic route of the Dutch National Research Agenda. In our diverse society, the more we tell the stories of the past, the more united we become and the better we can tackle present challenges such as polarisation, racism and discrimination.