“Who is able to describe the feelings?” Travelling nuns in colonial contexts, 1896-1918

My paper proposal discusses the Servants of the Holy Spirits and their travels to their fields of work missionary in the German colonial empire between 1896 and 1918. Founded in 1889, the Holy Spirit congregation was one of the first German women congregations explicitly dedicated to missionary work. Moving to their mission fields in colonial Togo and New Guinea, these women missionaries regularly wrote to the congregation’s “motherhouse” in Europe. Departing from the analysis of the traveler’s correspondence with Europe, I explore the effects of the steamship passage on individual and collective identities and address the issue of mobility in the context of gender, religion and colonialism. My theoretical approach to the passage follows recent scholarship in the cultural sciences that has historicized the sea (Klein and Mackenthun, 2003). Thinking of the steamship passage to the colonies as the nuns’ first immediate experience with masculine-dominated (secular and Protestant) colonial orders and social hierarchies, I explore the shifting construction and intersection of the categories of gender and race/ethnicity in their identity formation. Travelling nuns in colonial settings found themselves being part of both, a subordinated (and relatively powerless) group of women and a privileged group of “white” Westerners. I will argue that the experience of “travelling across empire for religious reasons” provoked observable shifts in the nuns’ identities. They redefined their own position as Catholic women missionaries, whereby intersecting aspects of religion, gender and race played the most prominent roles. Mobility, as the missionary’s essential emblem, became the colonizers’ privilege, while the indigenous culture was constructed as immobile, static, suffering and receiving. Ultimately, I will suggest that the travel writers claimed a particular part as exemplary women and exceptional believers in these peculiar narratives of a colonial modernity they constructed.

Katharina Stornig is Fellow in Residence in The Institute of European History (Mainz, Germany). Publications : “The Vice of fornications seems innate to them.’ Bodies, sexuality and conversion”, in Calvi Giulia and Fadil Nadja (eds) The Politics of Diversity. Sexual and religious self-fashioning in contemporary and historical contexts, EUI Working Paper Series, Florence, 2011 ; and “Sister Agnes was to go to Ghana in Africa!’ Catholic nuns and migration” in Glenda Tibe Bonifacio (ed.) Feminism and Migration. Cross-cultural Engagements, Springer, 2012.

Childbirth and Abortion in “German East Africa”. Unruliness of East African Women and the Instability of Colonial Power

 The German Empire turned to ‘welfarist’ policies with regards to the Black inhabitants of its colonies as early as the 1900s, as a reaction to the violent colonial wars it fought, which had resulted in a high number of African casualties. As part of this turn in colonialist policies and as a reaction to a perceived “underpopulation”, reproductive health and population issues emerged on the agenda of (mainly male) German colonialists in “German East Africa”. While the motivations were manifold – ranging from economic calculations to missionary ‘altruism’ – and the disciplinary investment diverse (medical, administrative, economic, missionary), three narratives – culturalist, medical, and modernist – dominated the discussions on “underpopulation” and served to uphold the German colonisers’ political, economic and cultural supremacy. Not surprisingly, Black women were regarded as key to the colonisers’ interventions, but were attributed an ambivalent role. On the one hand, they were portrayed as ‘endangered’ by the supposed “promiscuity” of their husbands, by certain “customs and traditions” (such as “child marriages” and abortions) as well as by their supposed “ignorance” regarding “hygiene” and the like. On the other hand, the supposed “promiscuity” and sex work of Black women was seen as dangerous for the White male colonisers’ health. While the trope “White men saving Black women from Black men” was ever-present, the appearance of White nurses and midwives from Germany complicated the picture. Especially missionary circles advocated the ‘import’ of White women to improve maternal and child health, because they were seen as able to forge closer relations with Black women. My paper is based on German state publications as well as politico-scientific journals and monographs concerned with health and population in “German East Africa”. In order to analyse the material, I mainly resort to postcolonial theory (esp. Frantz Fanon, Roland Barthes and bell hooks).

Daniel Bendix is a PhD student at the Institute for Development Policy and Management of the University of Manchester (UK). His dissertation deals with the colonial history and development present of German reproductive health policies in “German East Africa” (Tanzania). In addition, he works as a facilitator for political adult education in Germany on topics such as South-North relations, colonialism, racism, gender, and “development aid”.