About the project

In Search of Ubuntu  –  Legacies of Imperial projects , re-Remembering & reThinking “Empire”

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Title: Fountain of Youth by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

“In Search of Ubuntu” –  a search for what makes us human and what connects us, is an investigative research based project, approached through the artistic lens, that retraces the causes of our current paradigm from the perspective of our shared history,  with its inception anchored in the Dutch Golden Age.

I began this research-based project, as my international response to the theme; Iepen Mienskip, “Open Community” of the 2018 European Cultural Capital Project in Leeuwarden, whose aim was to solve the controversial issues facing the Western World, among them, Migration, Inequality, Racism, and Climate Challenges.

With the conviction that it is not possible to solve these issues without addressing their root cause, I chose to begin the project by taking a closer look at the history of the Netherlands and its links if any to these controversial issues. My search led me to William IV (Willem Karel Hendrik Friso, Director General of the VOC and Prince of Orange-Nassau, the first hereditary stadtholder of all the United Provinces, the VOC (United Dutch East India Company) – “the world’s first Capitalist, Multinational, Stock issuing Company” and the Dutch Golden Age, who together are intertwined in our shared history. This important period of Dutch history, also connected to 17th century American Colonial history, Australia, India, nearly 400 years of the colonisation of Indonesia, colonisation of: the Americas, South Asia and Africa,  Slavery, Opium wars in China, Capitalism, Plunder, Genocide, Human Zoos, Racism, Exploitation, Environmental Degradation, Dispossession,  as well as 50 years of Domination of World Trade through Centralised Corporate Governance, State sponsored Intercontinental Trade through the VOC, which included Military support, Monopoly, Violence, Trade Wars, Ethnocide and Apartheid, is vital in understanding the aftermath of the global power struggle between England and the Dutch Republic.

Work in progress by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

The VOC offers a chilling example of what has happened in the past when cooperations become more powerful than states.  It is because of this, that the VOC (United Dutch East India Company), serves as a lens through which to explore the much larger economic and social forces that shaped the formation of European Global/Colonial Empires. Making all modern-day corporations the ‘direct descendants’ of the VOC model, as a result of their 17th-century “institutional innovations and business practices” that laid the foundations for the rise of giant global corporations. Aside from this it also serves as a cautionary tale all too relevant to the modern world’s current political and economic situation.

Work in progress by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

Considered by many to be the forerunner of modern corporations and as a highly significant and formidable socio-politico-economic force of the modern-day world to become the dominant factor in almost all economic systems today, the VOC also served as the direct model for the organisational reconstruction of the English/British East India Company in 1657.

The reconstructed British East India Company played an essential part in the development of long-distance trade between Britain and Asia. The trade-in textiles, ceramics, tea, and other goods brought a huge influx of capital into the British economy. This not only fueled the Industrial Revolution but also created a demand for luxury items amongst the middle classes. The economic growth provided by the East India Company was one factor in Britain’s ascendancy from a middling regional power to the most powerful nation on the planet. The profits generated by the East India Company also created an incentive for other European powers to follow its lead, which led to three centuries of competition for colonies around the world. This process went well beyond Asia to affect most of the planet, including Africa and the Middle East. Beyond its obvious influence in areas like trade and commerce, the East India Company also served as a point of cultural contact between Western Europeans, South Asians, and East Asians. Quintessentially British practices such as tea drinking were made possible by East India Company trade. The products and cultural practices travelling back and forth on East India Company ships from one continent to another also reconfigured the way societies around the globe viewed sexuality, gender, class, and labour. On a much darker level, the East India Company fueled white supremacy and European concepts of Orientalism (See Said, Orientalism).

Work in progress by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

The core of my project will focus on retracing the steps of the East India and West companies, with the VOC as an example. My interest is taking a critical and closer look at its so-called 17th-century institutional innovations and business practices that served as the direct model for the organisational reconstruction of the British East India Company and also inspired the rise of giant global corporations.

By retracing the steps of the VOC and WIC, I hope to able to bring to light, the darker side of their unaddressed business practices and connect the dots between these companies, the other Chartered – East India and West Companies, to the modern-day Corporations and their role if any in the controversial issues facing the Western World on the one hand and to Social and Environmental degradation, that has resulted in a Climate crisis. Aside from this, I will also look critically at the role played by the State, Law, Religion, Education, Culture, Media, Image making and Creation of Traditions that Matter, Society/Consumers. The other European Maritime Chartered Companies whose business practices I will look at include: the British East India Company, the French, Danish, Swedish, Belgian, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Scottish Companies among others.

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Work in progress by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

The below points are a few examples from my ongoing research about these companies and their business practices. What I have uncovered so far serves as a cautionary tale all too relevant to the modern world’s current political and economic situation. It also brings to light the urgency for us to question and think carefully about what we value, why we value it and what we lose by valuing it. 

  • The Opium War (or First China War) lay in a trade dispute between the British and the Chinese Qing Dynasty and the role the British East India Company played in creating millions of Opium addicts in China. With its mirror being the modern-day Opioid Crisis created by Pharmaceutical Companies in the United States.
  • The toppling down and impoverishing of whole governments at that time by the East India Companies and the toppling down and impoverishing of wholes governments now buy modern-day corporations through state capture – examples, Cecil John Rhodes and his Rhodesia and the case of South Africa with the Guptas and De Beers.
  • The VOC- Dutch East India Company Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, Jan Pieterszoon Coen’s motto of (No war without Trade and Trade Without War) that included the Depopulation and Ethnic Cleansing of Banda Islands – to the modern-day Corporations who hire Militias to use Sexual Violence in the form of rape of Men, Women, Children, Elderly people and Genocide to empty the villages through forced violent migration, which in turn makes way for the mining of Congo DRC’s minerals, used for Laptops, our “Green” Electric cars, Smartphones, Games, Jewelry etc while the rest of the World Consuming these products turn a blind eye.
  • East India Company’s invention of Corporate Corruption, bending legislature to its will by using its own money power and having heavily insider trading and its modern-day mirror being, today’s campaign contributions where corporations are in a strange intimate dance with the state and through this sometimes control the state. Example, the problem of Guns and gun violence in the USA.
  • The fact that 40% of East India Company’s shareholders were members of parliament which forced them to bail out the East India Company from bankruptcy which in turn was bailing themselves out for their own interest – and its mirror being the 2008 crisis where the governments had to bail the banks.
  • The birth of blind consumerism – e.g. the dark side of tea – sugar, cotton and spices which came at a cost of genocide, slavery, being branded, rape, torture, destruction of communities, toppling of whole governments, taking over of countries, plunder and environmental degradation and its modern mirror being; the systematically  looting of the DRC Congo, the richest country in the world with the poorest people. The minerals that are taken from this country, Gold, Coltan, Cobalt and other strategic minerals fuel war and are the source of extreme violence and abject poverty in the DRC. Cars like the “green” Electric car, Jewelry, Gadgets – Smartphones, all these items contain minerals found in Congo, often mined in inhumane conditions by young children who are victims of intimidation and sexual violence.  This systematic looting comes at the expense of millions of innocent men, women and children. Babies, Girls, Young Women, Women, Grandmothers, and also Men and Boys are cruelly raped often publicly and collectively.
  • All the East India and West Companies, bleeding countries they governed, dry while not taking responsibility to serve the people whose lands they plundered but only focused on returning value to their shareholders – and its mirror being the modern-day Corporations nearly destroying entire ecosystems and bleeding the planet dry by also putting the value to their shareholders above that of the planet and people, resulting in a climate crisis.
  • East India and West Companies creation of Slavery, Institutionalised Domination of Others, Racism, Segregation, White Supremacy, Concentration camps, Gas Chambers, enabled, nurtured and sustained by Law, Science, Religion, Education, Business and Consumers and its mirror being today’s fear of others, the viewing of Migrants as a threat, the keeping of Children in Cages by the United States, Modern Slavery in Libya and other parts of the world, Racist Traditions like Black Piet in the Netherlands, the killing of Black people in United States, resulting in the movements like Black lives matter, Institutional Racism and Denialism/Inability of Cultural Institutions to address or facilitate the dialogue about this dark past resulting in Public Institutions becoming places that Stimulate Exclusion and Strengthen Social Divides and lastly, the challenge for Europeans to fully embrace and come to terms with its dark past and to wake up to a very uncomfortable fact that the dark racial theories that helped inspire the Nazis run much deeper into German and European history than most people want to acknowledge.
  • The British East India Company’s role in helping kill off India’s once-robust textile industries, pushing more and more people into agriculture. This, in turn, made the Indian economy much more dependent on the whims of seasonal monsoons. Resulting in the British turning a blind eye while Orissa famine was killing over a million Indians. And its mirror being the modern-day Corporations who through pirate fishing with trollers – and whose fish are eaten by western consumers, take with one troller what Senegalese Fishermen eat in 56 years. In the process, destroying the Sea bottom, its Creatures, killing the Great Barrier Reefs and Senegalese Fishermen who get caught between these trollers. This resulting in Starvation and inability to survive that inturn causes Mass migrations to Europe due to scarcity of their main source of survival, leading to thousands of deaths at sea while the Western World and its citizens who consume these fish, turn a blind eye to the causes of these migrations and the aftermath thereof.

These are but a few examples that to me highlight the urgency to bring this history to light as our world is on fire, requiring urgent, critical and conscious solutions that equally demand drastic changes in human behaviour. I am of the belief that nothing has changed since the VOC, that the 17th-century institutional innovations and business practices and are still very much in effect hence our climate crisis.

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Work in progress artist in residency Leeuwarden – image Sithabile Mlotshwa

Although my project has at its centre the story of the Netherlands, as a starting point as well as looking at the Countries/Regions which fell Victim to its Colonial Expansion – the triangular trade makes it crucial to also tell the story of the other companies and the Trickle-down/Impact thereof.

In William Dalrymple’s words, I quote “that sort of world where corporate interests can cause security urgencies and big powers to simply topple whole governments, that world is created by the East India Company. The world where corporate, lobbyist, are constantly at work, chipping away, bribing, lunching, taking out, whispering in the ears of MPs and Ministers and altering foreign policies.”

Having started with the question, what it means to be human and an open community in relation to this history and the controversial issues facing the Western world, I will travel through a roaming artist in residency as an attempt to unveil the aftermath and global impact of this period to the present, by following the VOC and the WIC’s trade routes in order to connect the dots that led to the Dutch Golden Age, the countries touched by the Netherland’s colonial expansion through the “VOC Triangular Trade” and to other European countries who also created Chartered Companies inspired by and in competition with Dutch.

Work in progress by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

The project In Search of Ubuntu, a Collective History, Dutch Golden Age, is a major project. The Dutch part will have 1602 collected Stories, presented in the form of 5-minute video interviews, and illustrations. These amount of stories are a starting point and mark the year the VOC was founded. The project includes; an Installation entitled: “The international arm of the Dutch Republic” with; 8194 left hands that mark the VOC – Dutch East India Company’s shipping voyages found, that took place between the Netherlands and Asia from 1595-1795, as well as a Golden Archive with 1863 entries that mark the abolition of slavery, a collection of 1621 Historical tiles – that mark the year the Dutch West Indies Company (West-Indische Compagnie or WIC) was founded, between 350 to 400 Drawings that mark the Dutch Colonial period, including Paintings, a Public space Object entitled; Through the Eyes of Slauerhoff, Weapon of Choice, Repurposed books and more. The project will include a roaming residency that will navigate the triangular trade route: Africa – West Indies – Europe, a collection of stories and dialogues with inhabitants across the Netherlands and around the globe touched by the VOC/WIC and other Maritime Charted companies.

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Work in progress: Title – Weapon of Choice – installation of 433,785 donated and individually cast Phalluses by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

Why this project? The project started during the Artist in residency in Friesland and as an international response to the 2018 theme: Iepen Mienskip or ‘Open community’ of the European Cultural Capital project in Leeuwarden made possible by the 4 Leeuwarden Rotary Clubs.

My proposed response, based on the Zulu philosophy of Ubuntu, is an approach from a historical perspective and a critical reflection on the controversial issues facing the Western World, and an attempt to address what it means to be an open community in relation to the above-mentioned issues. The project through re-visiting history, interviews, collecting stories, inter-disciplinary collaborations, workshops, a roaming residency, and critical dialogue, will attempt to find similarities between the past and the present. It also seeks to question what role history has played or continues to play in the above-mentioned issues, its link to Global Capitalism and to Social and Environmental Degradation.

The historical lens as a take-off point:

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Work in progress by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

I’ve often wondered, putting in mind the history of the world and to be specific, European History in the case of my project, why it is possible with all the historical examples to learn from, how quick we forget, or rather the human disconnect from the past in relation to the present. But at the same time, the human disconnect to our natural environment. I strongly believe that the reason for the current state of our world is due to a lack of historical knowledge, omission, denial and trivializing parts of history leading to them being forgotten and ignored, resulting in a vicious circle. In my view, it’s not possible for us to change the current state of our world without re-tracing our steps through history in order to understand where we went wrong and how to fix that. It is with this reason that this project is approached from the historical lens; as I strongly believe that history is key in answering how to solve the above issues and where we go from here.

Ubuntu as the Core of the project:

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I have chosen to respond based on the Zulu philosophy of Ubuntu – which speaks of inter-connectedness of all, people and nature alike, meaning, “I exist because of everything – I exist because you exist.” In Zulu we have a saying; “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which literally translates, a person, is a person through people,” through the recognition of others and of all. The current state of our world demands a rethinking of how we deal with each other, with our natural environment and with everything around us. Although we have the capacity to make conscious choices and live a life that celebrates a culture of cultures while living in harmony with nature in our shared common home, we have through time, and at the expense of others, and of everything, chose the path that leads to the destruction of all.

I am of the belief that we are interconnected, that our actions echo beyond ourselves and due to this, also approach this project from the perspective of our inter-connectedness to all in search of what makes us human. 

Why Leeuwarden?

Installation: Through the eyes of Slauerhoff, work in progress by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

I began my journey in Friesland, the northern part of the Netherlands, attracted by the theme Iepen Mienskip meaning ‘Open community’ after having been selected by a jury to take part in this project and to respond to the theme from an international perspective.  The project which began with the question, where is Leeuwarden and how did this city come to exist, unearthed a rich history of this city, the vital role it played in the unification of the Netherlands, with William IV, Prince of Orange-Nassau named General Stadtholder of all seven of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, who also was the Director-General of the Dutch East India Company, the VOC and while his alliance with the business class deepened, the disparity between rich and poor grew. Reading about this history and about Slauerhoff, connected the dots I had not anticipated between; the city of Leeuwarden, the 7 provinces, the VOC and it’s voyages across the globe, the Dutch Golden Age and the link all these events have to the controversial issues facing the Western World as well as the aims of the Leeuwarden Cultural capital project. It is due to this that the theme of the project is: In search of Ubuntu, a Collective History, Dutch Golden Age.

Project Timeline:

Installation: The international Arm of the Dutch Republic part one with 8,194 left hands – and still a work in progress by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

This long-term ongoing project, which started with a one-year Artist in Residency in Leeuwarden, includes a roaming residency that will begin by connecting the historical dots of all the Dutch cities from the period of the VOC, the Dutch Golden Age, to date. Cities that will have a Roaming residency in the Netherlands and a project presentation include Leeuwarden, Middleburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Delft, Hoorn and Enkhuizen. The Leeuwarden exhibition of the project process will be presented in the month of November and December. This will be followed by the roaming residency to all the countries that had Chartered Companies and the Countries/Regions which fell Victim to their Colonial Expansion.

While the research part of the project, collection of stories, drawings, paintings, filming and interviews continues in other cities of the Netherlands, the project from 2019 will also follow the voyages of the VOC and the WIC to the different parts of the world it touched – from Africa, Asia to the Americas. As I read about the VOC and specifically the WIC – Dutch West India Company (Dutch: Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie, the triangular links as well as it’s different activities unfold; from Trade of Colonial goods, Slavery, Plantations, Divide and Conquering, the Speculative bubble caused by the Tulip mania, Mass violence, Trade competition linked to the desire to gain political power, Colonialism, Genocide, Greed and much more.

Below is a list from Wikipedia of the Chartered companies that were involved in the domination of the world from the 15th century to the present day.

By looking at the parallels in relation to the Dutch companies, I will attempt to unearth the rise and fall of all these companies through the medium of expression as well as the chronology of what happened after their fall to-date. I’m also interested in the impact these companies had in all the places they operated as well as the impact they had in their own countries. 


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Installation: The Primitive State of Ernest Noirot – by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

The second leg of the project will include the participation of people from different sectors so as to have a critical view. This will include Researchers, Historians, Writers, Illustrators, Journalists, Filmmakers, Educators, Politicians from different political parties, Business, Policymakers, Elderly and Young people.

Aside from the works that I will produce, the project will also include several collaborations: A children’s book with illustrations by Nina Peckelsen, digitalization of the Golden Archive by Marijke and Hein de Graaf.

During the first part of my research, several people emerged that will play an important part in the realization of the Leeuwarden context of this long-term project; Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, William IV, Prince of Orange-Nassau, the root mother, Landgravine Marie Louise of Hesse-Kassel, Ester Naomi Perquin, through her poem she wrote for the Metrical Footstep in Leeuwarden, Sijtie Huisman, Nina Peckelsen, Peter de Haan, my guest parents; Annagreet Hoogeland and Gerrit Jan Hoogeland, Bert Finke, Karin Sitalsing from her book, “Boeroes”, my guest brother Vince Briffa, Felix de Rooy, Carl Haarnack, Jan Stobbe and fellow artists am sharing a studio with; Kamila Elżbieta and Jürgen Kling among others.

The proposed project for AIR Rotary Clubs – MAY 2018 phase 1

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Work in progress by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

In a reflection of ‘iepen mienskip’ which I’ve come to understand as a word that means, community, I’d like to do a project that both reflects on the history of Leeuwarden to the present, in relation not only to its natural environment but to the world.
As I began reading about Leeuwarden and trying to understand iepen mienskip, the first thought that came to mind was that ‘iepen mienskip’ was like “Ubuntu” a Zulu philosophy meaning “ being or to be human”, something that we as humans can acquire and through it live in harmony with fellow men and the natural environment. But as I read on, I discovered that there is a dark side to ‘mienskip’ whereby Frisians are prone to be wary of external input, clinging to a static definition of their culture and landscape. It is then that I realized the difference between Ubuntu and ‘mienskip’ because Ubuntu has no dark side, has no community, no identity or place.

Ubuntu is just that Ubuntu. We have a saying in Zulu that “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which literally translates, “ A person is a person through people”. Ubuntu is similar to ‘mienskip’ but more. To acquire Ubuntu is to strive for the essence of being human whereby your existence, can only be possible through others and everything; men, beast and nature as equals.
I’m very much interested in the idea of an open “mienskip’ as proposed in the Lwd2018 as well as the possibility of inspiring Ubuntu. For the residency in Leeuwarden, I’d like to produce a body of work in the reflection of ‘iepen mienskip’ by looking at and questioning traditions that Matter in relation to society and our natural environment.
I’d like to spend the first few days having a dialogue with different members of the society, specifically the elderly and the youth, collecting stories,
portraits and things that matter.

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Work in progress by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

I also would like to visit monuments, speak to and capture stories from the following villages: Stiens, Grou, Goutum, Wergea, Jirnsum, Reduzum, and Wirdum. I’d like to focus the core of my research in these three places: Nijehove, which I understand to be the most important of the three villages, (the other two being Oldehove and Hoek) which in the early 9th century merged into Leeuwarden.
My body of work, a combination of paintings and an installation will be built based on answers to my questions, inspired by my research, dialogue with different people and on the history of Leeuwarden.
The object I’d like to use for my installation is the Slauerhoffbrug – which I understand to be one of the historical monuments. I’d like to work with smiths/people specialized in or able to build an imitation of the bridge by using wood. If possible, I’d like to work with the community in building this bridge. I’m very much interested in the fact that the Slauerhoffbrug uses two arms to swing a section of the road in and out of place within the road itself. In Zulu, we have a saying that “izandla ziyagezana”, which means you need two hands to cleanse, the Slauerhoffbrug is a great symbol for reflecting Ubuntu and diversity. Is it with this reason that I draw my inspiration from it and would like to use it for my installation which I hope to present in a public space.
Besides this, I’d like to have access to the historical archives as well as the ability to use historical images and maps.
Thank you.

Sithabile Mlotshwa


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Title: We all need to eat – Repurposed Book by Sithabile Mlotshwa, image courtesy of the artist, all rights reserved. 

All the information I have gathered and work I have done so far is thanks to the support of the Rotary Clubs Leeuwarden, for financially supporting the entire first phase of the project. Annagreet Hoogeland and Gerrit Jan Hoogeland, for being a great support as my host parents, introducing me to all the people that would strenghten my project and contributing content for my Golden Archive, Doet Broersma, for organising the residency and all her support, Reint Jelsma and his Pharmacy for his major support in sponsoring my 11 month Artist in residency in Leeuwarden, Bert Finke, Karin Sitalsing from her book, “Boeroes”, Barbara Martijn, Peter de Haan, Felix de Rooy, Carl Haarnack, and Jan Stobbe for being a great support, introducing me to all the people that would strenghten my project and contributing content for my golden archive, fellow artists I shared a studio with; Kamila Elżbieta and Jürgen Kling, for suporting my process, Alexander ten Bruggencate, for his major support in offering me a studio in Amsterdam and contributing content for my Golden Archive and Historical Tiles, , Marco van Thiel, for his contineous support in my work, sponsoring my art material and laptop, Robert’s World Money for donating all his images, Mira Winter, Tonie van Marle, Martina Gruber and Lauryn Arnott, for contributing to the building of my content, Daniela Belinga Agossa and her Culture centre, for offering me an Artist in residency and two exhibitions in France to continue the project and connect the dots from the Netherlands to France, Nadia Jellouli-Guachati, for inviting me to give a talk at Van Abbe Museum, supporting and promoting my project, Pierre Bongiovanni, for contributing to the building of my content and offering me an exhibition in Champagne, Fons Geerlings, Rob Peree and Hilde de Bruine, for supporting the development of my project through connecting me to the people they felt were important for the project to grow.

Debates and conferences I’ve attended, include Comparing the wars of decolonization: Extreme violence during reoccupation and counter-insurgency,
1945-1975, OBA Amsterdam, several debates at the Research Centre for Material Culture – Tropical Museum, Amsterdam, working with Tresoar team for gathering information for my project in Leeuwarden, Great support from Zeeuws Archief for gathering information about my project in Middleburg, documentary “City of Joy on Netflix” and documentary “Inside Story, – “The Silent Male Victims of Rape” by Journalist Jane Dutton, on Aljeezera. the documentary “Rotten” from Netflix propelled my work forward and helped connect the dots to the current state of our world, the documentary – Slavery: A Global Investigation (Modern Slavery Documentary) – Real Stories, contributed to this as well, Wikipedia, William Dalrymple’s work, and many other books, papers and documentaries.