Special issue about child separation in former colonies in the spotlight

Date of news: 10 March 2021

Why were children separated from their own family and culture in the Dutch East Indies and Rwanda? In a recently published special issue on ‘Child Separation’ of BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review, eight authors - including three RICH historians - discuss radical colonial projects that continue to affect European involvement with children in poor countries today.

The ‘stolen generations’ in Australia and the ‘boarding school children’ in Canada. These are well-known examples of local, colonized children who were alienated from their families by the British empire through re-education projects. With boarding schools, day schools, and being relocated to white adoptive families, the new generations of colonial subjects were supposed to ‘Westernize’, so their own culture would eventually be erased. This colonial policy has been a subject of public debate since the 1990s and has even led to official apologies in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Album met foto's van Batavia en de zusters Ursulinen
Ursuline with children in the yard of the Vincent orphanage,
Batavia (ca.1890-1910). Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Album met foto's van Batavia en de zusters Ursulinen (RP=F=F01077).


In continental Europe, on the other hand - including the Netherlands and Belgium - there is almost complete silence about these colonial practices. Yet at the height of colonial rule in Africa and Asia (1890-1940), Europeans launched similar ‘civilization offensives’ separating local children from their own family, community and culture. In the theme issue Child Separation: (Post) Colonial Policies and Practices in the Netherlands and Belgium by BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review, eight authors - including Marit Monteiro, Maaike Derksen and Marleen Reichgelt - discuss radical colonial projects in the Dutch East Indies and (former Belgian) Rwanda. Monteiro: ‘The contributions clarify the complex and entangled Dutch and Indonesian/Belgian and Rwandan history through institutions of upbringing and education for local children. These were run by Christian missionaries and missionaries who wanted to "save" these children, often funded by the colonial government.’

Research report

The theme issue also focuses on how these colonial visions and practices affect Western humanitarian involvement with children in economically weaker parts of today's world. This is reflected in development aid, but also in "saving orphans" through intercountry adoption. The latter point led to the attention of the Dutch media because of the Dutch government's investigation report into abuses in intercountry adoption in the Netherlands between 1967 and 1998, which was published on 8 February. Monteiro: ‘Our research actually reveals the colonial roots of our contemporary thinking about the needs of and help for children in the South. Interventions such as intercountry adoption show that "Western" ability is overestimated and local response to distress is disparaged.’

Media attention