News Articles

Dutch missionaries among ten casualties in 1904 Papua killing spree

Brutal slaying did not end work

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

TILBURG, the Netherlands – A century ago, Roman Catholic missionary Father Henri Rutten, 29, was one of many hundreds of Dutch priests and monks labouring in distant places. Rutten who in 1900 had arrived in the Island of New Britain, which was part of the Bismarck Archipelago of Neu Pommern (New Pomerania), was content with his situation in the Baininger tribal area. He was part of a group of missionaries who belonged to the order of the Sacred Heart. Five German sisters helped with the work.

The missionaries of the Sacred Heart aimed to gain the release of local tribesmen from their oppressors, another but stronger tribe, the Tolai, who used the Bainingers as serfs if not slaves. Some of the tribesmen already had been freed, men the Vicar of Neu Pommern believed could be converted and form the basis for healthy family life and a church.

Still, all was not well in the outposts Nacharunep and St. Paul, west of New Britain’s main port of Rabaul, and north of the Baining Mountains. The tribesmen of St. Paul, the first Christian village, had difficulty adapting to their freedom and were gravitated back to their oppressors. One man, To, particularly was ungrateful and rumoured to utter threats to kill missionaries. Attempts to find To were unsuccessful when the community protected him.


Rutten who worked in isolated Nacharunep, in a letter to his parents in Fall 1902 wrote about a man who had threatened to steal a gun from the priests so he could kill them and others. The information mentioned in passing took an ominous turn less than two years later when news was received of the tragedy that involved ten missionaries. The murders left a deep impression with people everywhere. The victims were seen as modern-day martyrs for the faith.

Besides Father Henri Rutten, the Baininger tribesmen also murdered the monks Johannes (Knillis) Schellekens (from Oisterwijk), Eduard Plasschaert (from Overslag, Zeeland), and the Trappist monk Bleij. They also killed one other Sacred Heart missionary – Rascher, a German - along with five German nuns. The details of the savagery of the killings can be found at the MCS home office in Tilburg, which in its archives also preserves the letters Rutten and Schellekens wrote home to family.

The August 13 tragedy did not spell the end of the mission however. Instead, it rather helped the mission to take roots.

New analysis

The colonial authorities of New Britain, then still a German territory, reacted with brutal force. A number of the perpetrators were executed. The Germans sent an expedition into the region, which hardly had emerged from the stone-age. Entire villages thus were wiped out in the aftermath of the slayings.

Over the years, the August date has become the focus of annual gatherings at St. Paul. The significance is not so much pilgrimage as it is a family and tribal reunion where people meet one another once a year. Hence, few people venture up the trails to the burial site of the missionaries.

In recent publications, the question of what could have triggered the murders a century ago also has received renewed attention. A new analysis of the sequence of the 1905 events suggest that the unhappy To felt slighted because his status as the chieftain’s son had not been acknowledged by the missionaries. Although he had been freed from serfdom, the missionaries also, likely unwittingly had upstaged the man’s social standing in the community.

The 1904 murder was not the last one involving missionaries. Almost a century later, in 2003, the death of Anglican missionaries in the Papua region also shocked people far and wide.