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
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‘I ought not be married as a coloured person’: Rassenmischehen and Categories of Difference in 1920s Southwest Africa

Lisa M. Todd is Associate Professor of History at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto, an MA from Royal Holloway College, University of London, and a BA from the University of New Brunswick.  Todd’s first monograph, Sexual Treason in Germany during the First World War, appeared in 2017 with Palgrave-Macmillan. Her current project, “Racial Citizenship: Miscegenation, Scientific Authority, and the Creation of Intimate ‘Others’ in Modern Germany, 1880-1950,” examines the anthropological interest in “mixed race” sexual relationships, from the German colonial period, to the end of the Third Reich. 

Background: Post-Genocidal Mixed Marriage Regulations

In 1905, amidst the genocidal violence that accompanied the German-Herero and German-Nama Wars, colonial administrators in German Southwest Africa (SWA, present-day Namibia) introduced a ban on ‘civil marriages between whites and ‘natives.’ Two years later they nullified all so-called mixed marriages that had taken place before 1905. In 1908, a German Imperial Ordinance was published conferring on governors the power to make laws concerning the marriage of Indigenous peoples in Protectorates. In May 1912 the German Reichstag passed a controversial resolution ‘to ensure the validity of marriages between whites and natives in all German colonies’ and to determine the rights of illegitimate children, and in April 1914, the Governor of German Southwest Africa issued a decree allowing for the registration of marriages between Europeans and ‘natives’. The inconsistency of these legal decisions, over the course of only nine years, resulted in trauma to the families involved, but also an uneven implementation of the processes of sexual and racial segregation that accompanied the German occupation of Namibia.[1]

A lively historiography has developed around early twentieth century Rassenmischehen in the colonial sphere, as scholars seek to evaluate how the racialization of space compounded hierarchies of power in settler societies. Sexual ‘race-mixing,’ or miscegenation, presented obstacles to these power structures. White settlers increasingly saw biracial persons as cases in urgent need of categorization: would these people, with the ‘white blood in their veins’ be useful in future European domination, or did their ‘black blood’ mark them as future threats to white supremacy in occupied lands?  Uncertainty about the intersections of race, sexuality, and the law continued past German occupation, and were further complicated when South African authorities introduced their own anti-miscegenation legislation after 1919. The following example illustrates this point.

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