Colonial history lessons: what do you learn when you look at children?

Date of news: 13 July 2021

Colonial systems had profound effects on children in colonised areas, which continue to this day. Researchers Marit Monteiro, Maaike Derksen and Marleen Reichgelt will translate their research into teaching material for primary education. ‘It is good if children learn that their environment is partly shaped by our colonial history.’

The Radboud Science Awards are awarded annually to three research projects of Radboud University. Together with educational experts, the winners develop teaching materials about their project for children in years 7 and 8. One of this year's winners is the project by Prof. Marit Monteiro, dr. Maaike Derksen and Marleen Reichgelt MA of the Radboud Institute for Culture and History (RICH). With their research they try to break the silence about the impact of 'civilisation attacks' on local children in former Dutch colonies.

'When you talk about slavery, you also have to make clear how exactly we as the Netherlands were involved in it'

According to the three researchers, it is a subject to which little attention is paid in primary school education. Reichgelt: 'I looked at which heavy, historical themes are discussed in the Jeugdjournaal (Dutch news journal for children, red.). For example, they do discuss the history of slavery, but our colonial past as such is not really discussed. I was actually a little surprised about that. Because when you talk about slavery, you also have to make clear how exactly we as the Netherlands were involved in it.'

Children in colonial context

The research by Monteiro, Derksen and Reichgelt focuses specifically on children. International research shows how much children were at the centre of colonial policy. The aim of this policy was to gain and maintain control over the local population through all kinds of interventions. In addition to violence, this also happened through 'softer' practices, such as upbringing and education. Also, in the former Dutch colonies, local children in boarding schools, orphanages and other institutions were raised and educated separately from their parents, community and culture. The aim was to 'westernise' them. Monteiro: ‘This practice was presented as humanitarian: local children supposedly needed help, they had to be 'saved' from their environment.’ Protestant missionaries and Catholic missionaries made efforts to achieve this within these institutions for upbringing and education.

Foto 3b. Internaat voor Javaanse meisjes te Mendut (ca. 1920)
Boarding school for Javanese girls in Mendut. Source: Sint Claverbond 40 (1928), p. 181 & Franciscanessen Semarang

It is a very complex story, Monteiro emphasises. 'Certainly now that the 'residential schools' for First Nations' children in Canada, which existed until 1996, are in the news, the question is how exactly local children in the former Dutch colonies became separated from their parents and community. For the Dutch East Indies, we simply don't know enough yet to answer that question. Some children were withdrawn from the parental authority of their (Javanese) mother, other children were placed in an orphanage (temporarily or otherwise) by their parents, because they could not take care of them. More research is important, and we must critically weigh the humanitarian nature of such interventions, in terms of 'rescuing' or 'helping'. Those interventions have left deep marks in the lives of the children involved, their parents and the wider community.’

Present day

This research is important because it has also shaped our current society: the society in which primary school children live today. Derksen: 'Awareness is growing. There are also people in the Netherlands who were in those institutes as children. Approaching that from a historical perspective helps the discussion in class about the present.’

Foto 2a. Missiebusje
Mission boxes were placed at shops, companies and schools to collect money for the mission work. Bron: Erfgoed Centrum Nederlands Kloosterleven, VW-P013-001

Especially because comparable humanitarian projects still exist. ‘Take the example of a charity walk for a primary school in Nigeria’, says Monteiro. ‘You could think: it is good for our children to commit themselves to this, because they have to look beyond their own world, in which they are so well off. But is that what they learn? Or do such projects inadvertently contribute to a kind of morally superior self-image: we are going to help those 'poor' children so that they can live the way we live. We find it difficult to deal with the fact that things are sometimes simply organised differently in other parts of the world and that that does not necessarily mean that it is worse.’ Reichgelt nods: ‘It would be great if our teaching materials could show primary school pupils what humanitarian interventions – then, but also now – do to relationships.'

'We find it difficult to deal with the fact that things are sometimes simply organised differently in other parts of the world'

Teaching materials

Colonial past, humanitarian interventions, feelings of moral superiority; these are big words for elementary school kids. To make it understandable for them, the three researchers will work with teachers from primary education and the Science Hub to convert the research into concrete activities. An important part of this will be a research component. Monteiro: ‘As far as we are concerned, it starts with the natural curiosity of children: what is this, what is the story behind it? We have fantastic material at the Catholic Documentation Centre and the Dutch Monastery Life Heritage Center in Sint Agatha. We also want to go to visit these locations with the children, so they can rummage through photo albums, baptism certificates and correspondence from that time.’ Derksen: ‘The fact that we can show the colonial history through the lens of children from the past to children of today makes it very recognizable.'

The researchers especially do not want to avoid difficult words. Monteiro: 'You shouldn't level down beforehand. When we talk about a ‘civilisation attack’, we call it that. Then students can ask questions. Kids can do a lot. You should not underestimate them.’

More information about the Radboud Science Awards can be found on the website of the Science Hub of Radboud University.


Prof. Marit Monteiro is a professor of cultural and religious history. She coordinates the international research network 'Children as objects and agents of change' (COAC) with two other researchers, which focuses on the analysis of colonial missionary strategies with regard to children.

Dr Maaike Derksen is a history teacher. She obtained her doctorate on 15 June 2021 for historical research into the Catholic mission in the Dutch East Indies, in which she shows how closely and directly this mission was interwoven with colonial power structures.

For her PhD research, Marleen Reichgelt MA is analysing an extensive collection of mission photography to study the position of children involved in the Catholic mission in the then Dutch New Guinea between 1905 and 1962.

From left to right: Maaike Derksen, Marit Monteiro and Marleen Reichgelt