: ‘Foto uit H. Geurtjens MSC, Onder de Kaja-Kaja’s van Zuid Nieuw Guinea’
: ‘Foto uit H. Geurtjens MSC, Onder de Kaja-Kaja’s van Zuid Nieuw Guinea’

The role of Papuan children in the Dutch colonising mission in West Papua

Why did children feature so frequently in the photos of Catholic missionaries who worked in West Papua at the beginning of the twentieth century? This is something that historian Marleen Reichgelt asked herself. “The children were much more than just the targets of civilisation.” Reichgelt will defend her PhD thesis on 20 June at Radboud University.

In one of the photos in the PhD thesis we can see part of a jungle, where there are many bushes and long palm tree trunks, some of which have half fallen over. If you look closely, you can see a small figure between these trees: it is a Papuan child who is about twenty times smaller than the tree trunk that he is standing next to. Who is this boy in the photo margin? What was his connection to the missionary who took the photo? And what impact did the arrival of Dutch colonial rule have on his life? This is something that historian Marleen Reichgelt asked herself.

Reichgelt stumbled across thousands of photos of the early twentieth-century Dutch colonising mission in West Papua (which at the time was a colony called Dutch New Guinea) while she was looking through the archives of the Heritage Centre for Dutch Monastic Life in Sint Agatha. The photos come from the private collections of missionaries and their correspondence with the home front. Many of the photos feature children. “Children are very difficult to trace in archives,” the researcher explains. “If you read in a report that there was a Papuan guide on the trip, it’s not clear that they are talking about a child: this is only evident from the photos.”

Targets of civilisation

In their letters and diaries, many missionaries described how they travelled to Papua New Guinea in order to ‘open up’ new areas and civilise and ‘Christianise’ the people (by converting them to Catholicism). “Unfortunately, it’s primarily the perspective of the missionaries that is presented in the archives,” says Reichgelt. “In their letters, they occasionally wrote about children, as they saw them as prime candidates for their civilising mission. They attempted to instil Western Christian norms into the children, and teach them about Western Christian customs and religion, because they believed that this would give them a better life. But these kinds of colonial practices were disruptive to local communities.”

According to the researcher, you need to read between the lines a little when it comes to these kinds of photos, which often also served as propaganda. “I analyse the photos as evidence of events and encounters in which the children actually participated. This consequently teaches you something about the children themselves, namely that they were much more than the target of civilisation offensives: they helped the missionaries to learn the language, for example, or they acted as interpreters or guides for the missionaries as they travelled through the countryside.”


In an effort to reconstruct who the children were, Reichgelt studied thousands of photos. But this still presented a challenge. “For example, there is a class photo of 28 boys. I only managed to find out four of their names.” However, she did find some of the same faces in several different photos and in photos from different years. This allowed her to follow the movements of many of the children for a period of about ten years, from their time as pupils at the boarding school to their later roles as interpreters and guides on the expeditions.

This also revealed the areas and communities from which the boarding school pupils had come. According to Reichgelt, the group of children is much more diverse than it seems at first glance. “They all had their heads shaved and were made to dress in western clothing, which meant that they all looked the same, but they all came from very different areas and had their own languages and cultures.”

“It would be good if historians could archive these types of photos properly, by including information about when and where the photo was taken. More importantly, these kinds of collections should become accessible to different groups of people, including those in contemporary West Papua. The photos could then be analysed from a range of perspectives, using different forms of cultural and historical knowledge. This would also allow us to decolonise these sources,” she continues. “Then we’ll hopefully no longer only look at this from the colonial perspective of the missionaries, but we’ll also be able to see it from the perspective of the relatives of the Papuans in the photos. Maybe the photos can then be used to fill the empty pages of their family photo albums.”

Photo: Scan of photographic image no. 228987, ENK AR-P027-20210

Contact information

More information? Please contact Marleen Reichgelt via marleen.reichgelt [at] ru.nl (marleen[dot]reichgelt[at]ru[dot]nl) or Team Science Communication via +31 24 361 6000 or media [at] ru.nl (media[at]ru[dot]nl)

Diversity, History