Rape and the Rule of Law in a German Colony

Emma Thomas (she/her) is a historian of gender, labor, and empire with a focus on Germany and the Pacific. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow with the Laureate Center for History and Population at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, where she leads a trans-regional research project on population change in colonial and postcolonial Oceania. She holds a PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is finalizing her book manuscript on New Guinean women’s labors in German colonial New Guinea.

In November 1911, Tapilai,[i] a woman from the island of Neu Hannover (Lavongai), appeared with her husband and brother before the German imperial authorities in Rabaul, then the capital of German New Guinea. The three worked as indentured laborers on the Lassul Plantation in Neu Pommern (New Britain) in the Western Pacific archipelago that still bears the name of Germany’s first Chancellor, Bismarck. Together with Tapilai’s two-month-old child, they had walked approximately one hundred kilometers to the colonial capital to lodge a complaint with the imperial administration against their employers, the German brothers, Wilhelm and Hermann Bolten. The brothers, they said, had repeatedly raped Tapilai, who worked as a laundress on the plantation.[ii]

Tapilai’s testimony of 27 November 1911, recorded by the Imperial District Court of Rabaul in German New Guinea. Source: National Archives of Australia

Tapilai’s story, though extraordinary, is not unique. Other cases in which indentured New Guinean women accused white employers or overseers of sexual assault and rape can be found in the extant archives of the Imperial Government of German New Guinea. In addition to their difficult subject matter, these records present challenges: as court records, they are highly mediated and structured in accordance with juridical logics that exclude at least as much as they contain; moreover, they are structured in accordance with the gendered and racialized logics of colonialism, replete with tropes designed to discredit Indigenous women and their witnesses. But they also afford rare and invaluable insights into indentured New Guinean women’s experiences of German colonial rule.

Women’s Experiences of Sexual Violence

As a numerical minority on plantations and in colonial centers, indentured New Guinean women were particularly vulnerable to male violence. Women and witnesses who testified in German colonial courts spoke to the potentially quotidian nature of sexual violence, as the daily routine of performing one’s labor brought women into male-dominated colonial spaces, including the homes of male colonists. Tapilai, for example, reported that Hermann Bolten called her into his room one evening and instructed her to fetch water for his washstand. She testified: “When I returned with the water, he came up behind me, pulled off my lavalava [loincloth] from behind, and pulled me into his bed, whereupon he had sex with me. He violently raped me twice more besides.”[iii]

A woman named Minni, from Neu Mecklenburg (New Ireland), told a similar story in early 1910. She testified that she had been raped by Gustav Thurm, an employee of the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen- Gesellschaft, while she and her husband worked as indentured laborers for the company on the island of Bougainville. The incident occurred, Minni said, when Thurn instructed her to collect his laundry from inside his house and take it to be washed.[iv] In 1906, a woman named Pulus reported that she was raped by Waldemar Kolbe, a storehouse foreman, when she went to the storehouse to carry out the mundane task of fetching rice.[v] She was carrying out her duties as an indentured laborer working for the colonial administration in the capital of Herbertshöhe (Kokopo) at the time.

Colonial Courts and the Rule of Law

These accounts reveal that colonial courts provided a site in which indentured New Guinean women could and did contest the terms of their labor and the violence inflicted upon them by white, European men. Rape cases that made it to German New Guinea’s courts were tried under the German Criminal Code, and it seems reasonable to suggest that New Guinean women who took their cases to court did so in pursuit of some kind of justice. Yet, an analysis of such cases also reveals the ways in which gendered and racial colonial hierarchies entered the courts and became constitutive of a colonial rule of law that ultimately served the interests of white men.

Themes of resistance and remuneration litter court records of rape cases. As defendants and as lawyers, white men leaned heavily on established tropes of Pacific women’s purported promiscuity when arguing their cases and making their rulings. Kolbe, for example, told the court that Pulus “easily acquiesced” when he “grabbed her on the genitals.” He said that when he was done, he paid her two marks.[vi] Thurm similarly told the court that Minni had agreed to exchange sex for two marks (a claim that Minni denied), while an administrative official informed that court, unsolicited, that Minni was a “very promiscuous woman.”[vii] A colonial judge likewise asked Tapilai whether she “willingly had sex” with the defendants and had received payment for doing so.[viii] Time and again, judges ignored women’s testimonies and concluded that evidence of force was lacking.[ix]

Reading these cases, it comes as little surprise that I have not found a single instance of a white man being found guilty of raping a New Guinean woman by a German colonial court. New Guinean men, on the other hand, received sentences that included imprisonment with forced labor for the same crime, in the same courts, underscoring the racialized nature of colonial “justice.”[x] Moreover, evidence contained in court records reveals that New Guineans reported sexual assaults to overseers or employers who failed to act upon the complaints. Instead they protected perpetrators and sought to silence survivors.[xi] Court records also speak to the fear that New Guinean women and their family members had of reporting sexual assault. Some women remained silent for shame or fear of their husbands’ reactions while others resisted reporting these crimes fearing further violence from their assailants.[xii] The cases discussed here, therefore, are in many ways exceptional, but traces they left in the colonial archives suggest that the violence they describe was less exceptional.

Cite this article: Emma Thomas, “Rape and the Rule of Law in a German Colony.”, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 03/11/2023, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/2191, (accessed on: Datum).


[i] The spelling of New Guineans’ names in German records is often highly inconsistent. For the sake of clarity, I have applied one spelling consistently throughout.

[ii] Kaiserliches Bezirksgericht zu Rabaul, Akten in der Strafsache gegen Bolten, Wilhelm, und Bolten, Hermann, wegen Notzucht: National Archives of Australia, Canberra (hereafter, NAA): Imperial Government of German New Guinea; G255, Correspondence files; 325.

[iii] Tapilai’s testimony, Rabaul, 27 November 1911, NAA: G255, 325.

[iv] Minni’s testimony, Kieta, 18 February 1910, Kaiserliches Bezirksgericht zu Herbertshöhe, Akten in der Strafsache gegen Thurm, G. Händler, zuletzt in Kieta: NAA: Imperial District Court and Office; G254, Administrative records of German New Guinea; 75.

[v] Pulus’s testimony, Herbertshöhe, 12 February 1906, Kaiserliches Bezirksgericht zu Herbertshöhe, Akten in der Strafsache gegen den Lageraufseher Waldemar Kolbe zu Herbertshöhe wegen Notzucht und Unterschlagung: NAA: G254, 106.

[vi] Waldemar Kolbe’s testimony, Herbertshöhe, 12 February 1906, NAA: G254, 106.

[vii] Thurm’s testimony, Friedrich Wilhelmshafen, 27 April 1910; Minni’s testimony, Kieta, 18 February 1910; and August Doellinger, Kieta, to the Imperial District Court, Herbertshöhe, 1 March 1910, NAA: G254, 75.

[viii] Eugen Grundler, Rabaul, 27 November 1911, NAA: G255, 325.

[ix] See, for example, the rulings of judge Wilhelm Stuckhardt in Kaiserliches Bezirksgericht zu Friedrich-Wilhelmshafen. Akten in der Strafsache gegen den Assistenten Arthur Sacchi wegen Menschenraubes Kaiserliches Bezirksgericht zu Friedrich Wilhelmshafen, NAA: 255, 1070; Akten in der Strafsache gegen den Offizier der Handelsmarien Jüdtz wegen Körperverletzung und Hausfriedensbruchs, NAA: G255, 1071.

[x] See, for example, Heinrich Schnee’s ruling, Herbertshöhe, 15 April 1899, Stationsgericht Herbertshöhe. Strafsache gegen Toreren von Wunamamie wegen Nothzucht, NAA: G255, 202; Schnee’s ruling, Herbertshöhe, 28 January 1899, Stationsgericht Herbertshöhe. Strafsache gegen den Hausjungen Kuka in Herbertshöhe aus Neu Hannover wegen Nothzucht, NAA: G255, 205.

[xi] Minni’s statement, Kieta, 18 February 1910, NAA: G254, 75.

[xii] Waneri’s statement, Herbertshöhe, 29 August 1899, NAA: G255, 191; Tawui’s statement, Herbertshöhe, 28 August 1899, NAA: G255, 192.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
hsl (November 3, 2023). Rape and the Rule of Law in a German Colony. History | Sexuality | Law. Retrieved July 24, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/ppxe


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