Child Separation: (Post)Colonial Policies and Practices in the Netherlands and Belgium




Children were central to Dutch and Belgian colonial projects. Children and youth were the objects of colonial interventions issued by missionaries and officials. However, children could also become actors who produced change in a colonial context. Crucial in colonial policies towards children was the separation of children from their parents, communities and/or culture (‘child separation’) in all kinds of forms – temporary or permanent, far from home or close by, in contact with their own community or cut off from it – and to various degrees of coercion (voluntary, from a situation of dependence, enforced with punishment or violence). Child separation projects could involve adoption, foster parenting, ‘apprenticeships’ serving a household, boarding schools or day schools. It could concern children from the local elite, but also children who ended up on the margins of their own communities or were even bought out of slavery. Child separation was never about education only, but always imposed specific morals and life styles on its subjects as well. It caused profound fault lines in colonised families and communities. For colonial politics, it was key to controlling, influencing and disciplining the colonised population (‘governmentality’). In the case of children of ethnically mixed descent, child separation often involved policing hierarchical racialised boundaries in the colony; in the case of indigenous children, it aimed at transforming the colonised population. Christian missions were pivotal in child separation projects. This special issue, therefore, pleads for a more central place of Catholic and Protestant missions in the analysis of Dutch colonial history, comparable to Belgian historiography. Finally, it is precisely these (missionary) colonial projects, often labeled as ‘soft’ or ‘civilising’, that have passed unnoticed into post-colonial discourses, organisations and practices, such as transnational adoption or surrogacy, and countless development projects in which children, detached from their own family and context, must be ‘saved’. Without proper scholarly attention for Christian missions in colonial history, these traces of the colonial past in the postcolonial present will not be recognised as such.

Kinderen stonden centraal in Nederlandse en Belgische koloniale projecten. Kinderen en jongeren waren daarbij het object van koloniaal handelen van missionarissen, zendelingen en ambtenaren, maar zij konden ook zelf actoren worden die in een koloniale context veranderingen veroorzaakten. Cruciaal in deze koloniale projecten was het scheiden van kinderen van hun ouders, van hun gemeenschappen en van hun cultuur (child separation) in allerlei vormen – tijdelijk of voorgoed, ver van huis of dichtbij, in contact met de eigen gemeenschap of volledig daarvan afgesneden – en in diverse gradaties van dwang (vrijwillig, vanuit een situatie van afhankelijkheid, afgedwongen met straffen of geweld). Concreet kon het gaan om adoptie, pleegouderschap, het in huis nemen van werkende ‘leerjongens en -meisjes’, kostscholen of dagscholen. De kinderen zelf waren afkomstig uit de lokale elite, of het waren juist kinderen die in de marge van hun eigen gemeenschappen terecht waren gekomen, of zelfs door missionarissen uit slavernij werden gekocht. De doelstellingen van deze praktijken betroffen nooit alleen onderricht, maar altijd ook het aanleren van een bepaalde levenswijze en moraal. Niet alleen veroorzaakten de scheiding en heropvoeding ingrijpende breuklijnen in gekoloniseerde families en gemeenschappen; voor de koloniale politiek waren deze kinderen de sleutel tot het controleren, beïnvloeden en disciplineren van de gekoloniseerde bevolking (governmentality). In het geval van kinderen van etnisch gemengde komaf ging het vaak om het bewaken van de hiërarchische geracialiseerde grenzen in de kolonie; in het geval van lokale kinderen meer om het transformeren van de gekoloniseerde bevolking. Van veel instellingen voor opvoeding en onderwijs van deze kinderen vormden christelijke missie- en zendingsorganisaties de spil. In en met dit themanummer wordt daarom ook een lans gebroken voor de integratie van missie en zending in het analyseren van de Nederlandse koloniale geschiedenis, in navolging van de Belgische historiografie. Tot slot zijn het juist deze vaak als ‘zacht’ of ‘civiliserend’ aangemerkte koloniale projecten die ongemerkt zijn overgegaan in postkoloniale discoursen, organisaties en praktijken, zoals transnationale adoptie of draagmoederschap, en talloze ontwikkelingsprojecten waarin kinderen, losgezongen van hun eigen familie en context, ‘gered’ moeten worden. Zonder gedegen wetenschappelijke aandacht voor de rol van christelijke missie- en zendingsorganisaties in de koloniale geschiedenis zullen deze sporen van het koloniale verleden in het postkoloniale heden niet als dusdanig worden herkend.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biographies

Geertje Mak

Geertje Mak is professor Political History of Gender at the University of Amsterdam and researcher at the humanities research group NL-Lab of the Dutch Royal Academy of Science. Historicising categories of difference and identities form the core of her work. She published in Dutch and internationally on the Western European history of the relation between bodies and selves in cases of gender transgression and intersex (such as Doubting Sex: Inscriptions, bodies and selves in nineteenth century hermaphrodite case histories, Manchester 2012), as well as on scientific practices of racial anthropometry in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century (most recently in the 2020 article ‘A Colonial- Scientific Interface: The Construction, Viewing, and Circulation of Faces via a 1906 German Racial Atlas’, American Anthropologist, Special Issue Race and Face, aman.13386). In her Dutch work on migration history in the Netherlands, she focused on the practices of encounters rather than fixed categories. Currently, Mak writes a microhistory of Protestant missionaries in Dutch New Guinea from the perspective of the theoretical notion of ‘geslacht’. This Dutch word connotes and connects gender, sex, race and generation, which can be used as key to analyse processes of historical change over generations and the coming into being of (racialised) inherited differences. Together with Marit Monteiro she coordinates the COACC network (Children as Objects and Agents of (Post)Colonial Change). E-mail:

Marit Monteiro, Radboud University Nijmegen

Marit Monteiro is professor of cultural and religious history at the Faculty of Arts of the Radboud University, Nijmegen. Her research focuses on religion and cultural memory, (shared and sharing) heritage, gender and intellectual culture. She coorganises the international research network ‘Children as Objects and Agents of Change’ (COACC; 2018-2021 funded by NWO, the Dutch Scientific Organisation). Its participants analyse the colonial dimensions and impact of missionary endeavours and projects related to local children in colonial and post-colonial contexts. Monteiro was a member of the Commission of Inquiry that investigated cases of sexual abuse of minors in the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands (1945-2010), led by the former Secretary of Education Wim Deetman (2010-2011). She was one of the guest editors of the special issue of Trajecta: Religie, cultuur en samenleving in de Nederlanden/ Religion, Culture and Society in the Low Countries 25:1 (2016) on ‘Child Sexual Abuse in the Churches: Historical Approaches in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands’. She currently writes the biography of the Dutch psychiatrist Anna Terruwe (1911-2004) which foregrounds questions of gender and authority in the religion-base health care system in the post-war Netherlands. Recent publications include ‘Katholieke psychotherapie in naoorlogs Nederland: Grenzen, gender en gezag in de affaire Terruwe’, Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 131:2 (2018) 285-308. DOI: E-mail:

Elisabeth Wesseling, Maastricht University

Elisabeth Wesseling is professor of Cultural Memory, Gender and Diversity and director of the Centre for Gender and Diversity at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of Maastricht University. She studies the ways in which Dutch educative discourses in children’s novels and textbooks were instrumental in selling, silencing and remembering practices of child separation in the Dutch East Indies. Her recent publications include ‘Are “the Natives” Educable? Dutch Schoolchildren Learn Ethical Colonial Policy (1890-1910)’ co-authored with Jacques Dane for the Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society 10:1 (2018) 28-44, and her editorship of the volumes Reinventing Childhood Nostalgia in Contemporary Convergence Culture (London 2017) and The Child Savage (1890-2010): From Comics to Games (Oxford 2016). E-mail: lies.wesseling@




How to Cite

Mak, G., Monteiro, M., & Wesseling, E. (2020). Child Separation: (Post)Colonial Policies and Practices in the Netherlands and Belgium. BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review, 135(3-4), 4-28.