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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