Difference Between the Self and the Heathen: European Imperial Culture in Dutch Missionary Exhibitions, 1909–1957

M.P. Groten

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


'Imperial culture’ is a concept coined by British historiography to describe the influence of imperialism on metropolitan British culture. Although it is now used in other national historiographies as well, it would appear that we have not yet realised the concept's full potential. This article, drawing on recent scholarship emphasising the transnational connections in European imperial cultures, investigates the implications of seeing imperial culture as a European phenomenon and as a European mentality. For this purpose, this article uses the narrative that was propagated at a specific national practice where empire met a metropolitan European society as a case study: missionary exhibitions in the Netherlands in the first half of the twentieth century. Here, Catholic and Protestant missionaries displayed objects from the indigenous, colonised populations who they were trying to convert and hereby legitimised and underpinned imperialism in Dutch culture. However, their significance went deeper than that. This article argues that the missionaries’ narrative transcended the national level and promoted ideas of Christianity as a European religion and civilisation as a European trait. A European community based on religious, cultural, and racial traits was set against a generic non-European heathen world. However, national and denominational frames of reference also remained in place. With this case study, the article explores the possibilities and difficulties that arise from studying imperial culture as a European mentality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)490-513
Number of pages24
JournalThe Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History
Issue number3
Early online date29 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2019


This article is the output of a six-month position as guest researcher at Huygens ING, which took as its basis Huygens ING's extensive digital database of Dutch missionary archives, the Repertory of Dutch Protestant and Catholic missionary archives, ca. 1800–1960. I finalised the article as part of my current NWO-funded PhD project ‘Imperial places’ at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. I would like to thank Gerrit Knaap as my supervisor at the Huygens Institute of Netherlands History (Huygens ING), Marjolein van’t Hart for offering me a position as guest researcher there, and Jos van Beurden, Tjalling Bouma, Marja van Heusden, and especially Susan Legêne for their comments on earlier drafts. Most of all, I thank the two anonymous reviewers from whose commentaries this text has benefitted so much.

FundersFunder number
Huygens Institute of Netherlands History
Repertory of Dutch Protestant and Catholic missionary archives1800–1960


    • Dutch colonialism
    • Imperial culture
    • ethnographic objects
    • exhibitions
    • missionaries
    • religion


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