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Re-education of Netherlands Indies children

In the late colonial Netherlands Indies, starting from 1892, homes were set up for the re-education of children. At first by private individuals, later by the government. Much later still, privately funded institutions existed alongside government-funded ones. Annelieke Dirks’ defence on 23 June 2011.


At the end of the 19th century, two Dutchmen, Johannes (Pa) van der Steur and Adolf van Emmerik, arrived independently of each other in the Netherlands Indies. They were actually there for missionary work, but they quickly began focusing on the care of children (Van der Steur) and both children and adults (Emmerik). Besides christening, their goal was re-education. Van der Steur focused primarily on Indo-European children, born in most cases of a Dutch colonial man and a Netherlands Indies woman.

Rust, reinheid en regelmaat én gymnastiek (bron: L.O.G. Ngawi)
Rust, reinheid en regelmaat én gymnastiek (bron: L.O.G. Ngawi)


Too European

He was driven by his concern for Indo-European children: that, raised as they were primarily by their mother, they would become too Indian. They were to be guided in a more European direction; in the meantime, in Western Europe, the idea had become prevalent that the development of children determined the future of a society. The re-education was also incidentally not supposed to be too European; the children of mixed Indian-European background were supposed to know their place.
Emmerik took on the re-education of street orphans and petty criminals (mostly thieves). Van der Steur was also quickly assigned petty criminals by the colonial government.

Anti-colonial sentiments?

A child who had just arrived at a Pro Juventute home (source: KTLV)
A child who had just arrived at a Pro Juventute home (source: KTLV)

Starting from 1906, following an important colonial safety study by former judge Boekhoudt, the re-education was further legitimated: people were afraid that the neglected and criminal youth would be susceptible to anti-colonial feelings. This was the case despite the fact that later research showed that the situation was not so threatening: the Dutch Indies population was at the time more focused on improving the existing colonial administration than on doing away with it. The administration had failed in important respects and this led to protests.


At the time of World War I in Western Europe, the colonial government also set up a number of educational institutions. The background to these initiatives was the generally felt sympathy of the Dutch Indies population for the collapsing Muslim Ottoman Empire: people now feared that Islam would gain too strong a foothold and that it would feed protests against the colonisers. These institutions mostly housed Muslim children. In order to not offend the local population too much, a religiously neutral institution was set up.

Private initiatives

But the homes filled up quickly. The individually-funded initiatives were financed by such organisations as the still existent Pro Juventute. The organisation tried to hire an increasing number of its staff and administrators from the ranks of the local and Chinese population. These people were often willing because it gave them a chance to further their own education.

Hybrid attitude

The ame child three weeks later (source: KTLV)
The ame child three weeks later (source: KTLV)

The governmental institutions were further characterised by their hybrid attitude: on the one hand, the children were given an education and, in addition to rest, purity and regularity, they were taught a craft (for boys, mostly metal- or woodwork, sometimes farming or gardening; for girls, home-making skills, handwork and sewing). On the other hand, however, they were generally focused on maintaining racial and cultural identity.

Local institutions

The step towards Dutch Indies institutions, with no link to the colonial powers, was at the time very limited. The progressive Moslim organisation Muhammadijah was one of pioneers in this respect. This organisation blended local values with a Western European education for the children, with the goal of allowing more Muslims to play a leading role in the colonial administration and bureaucracy. This initiative was also not particularly focused on the overthrow of the colonial regime.


In the course of the 1940s, however, what happened elsewhere in the colonies happened here too: nationalism grew in Indonesia and 1945 saw the declaration of independence. In 1949, the Netherlands accepted it. With reluctance.

PhD defence

Annelieke Dirks
For the Youth: Juvenile delinquency, colonial civil society and the late colonial state in the Netherlands Indies, 1872-1942
23 June 2011
Supervisors: Prof. H.W. van den Doel and Prof.dr. A.L. Conklin (The Ohio State University)

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