In Memoriam Laurens van der Laan (1932-2024)

The African Studies Centre Leiden is sad to report that Laurens van der Laan passed away in Oegstgeest on 22 March 2024. Van der Laan was a researcher at the African Studies Centre in Leiden from 1969 till his retirement in 1997.

Hendrik Laurens van der Laan was born in Leiden on 27 April 1932. His secondary school was the Marnix Gymnasium in Rotterdam. Van der Laan studied economics in Rotterdam (MA 1956, classes from Tinbergen and Witteveen), and fulfilled his military service from June 1956 to March 1958. After that, he studied Economic Planning and National Accounting at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (1958) and got his MSc at the Graduate School of the University of Wisconsin in 1959. Van der Laan went to Wisconsin on a Fullbright Scholarship and received a grant from the Van Leer Foundation.

Van der Laan then travelled to Sierra Leone, where he worked for almost a decade at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, the oldest college in West Africa. He was appointed by Dr N.A. Cox-George. He taught courses in economics and statistics, and was appointed associate professor in 1968. He moved to the African Studies Centre in Leiden in September 1969, where he was appointed as a researcher in economics. In fact Van der Laan only moved to Leiden in 1971, because he continued his fieldwork on Lebanese traders in Sierre Leone, for which he got a WOTRO grant.

Van der Laan’s main publications are on the economy and trade in West Africa, particularly on Sierre Leone. Some of his main publications are Sierra Leone Diamonds (Oxford University Press, 1965) and his 1975 Tilburg (cum laude) dissertation The Lebanese Traders in Sierra Leone (Mouton), which was reprinted in 2018 and is still widely cited. Van der Laan was looking beyond the financial facade: he also published on Asian minorities in Africa, colonial history, coffee, tea, tobacco and bananas and on land lease, agriculture and migration. He published in important journals such as African AffairsAfrican Economic History and The Journal of Modern African Studies.

After his retirement in 1997, Van der Laan continued his studies, and regularly visited the ASCL offices. In 2012, when he moved to a smaller house, he donated several interesting books and journals to the library of the African Studies Centre. This included a postcard album of a trip from Marseille to Madagascar in 1895 from Jacques Jenny, the grandfather of his wife Maja Bachofen. Van der Laan was a thoughtful and amiable man, to whom the ASCL owes a lot. In his life and work he was inspired and strengthened by his Christian faith. He was buried on Maundy Thursday, and his funeral card referred to the Bible (2 Corinthians 4:14). Our thoughts are with his children and grandchildren.

Jos Damen