“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.

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