I am looking at the picture of Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way by Emanuel Leutze which was painted in 1861. It was commissioned by the US Congress the year before and pretty much sums up I think not just American imperialism which in the 19th century was about settling the land west from the continental divide to the Pacific but that historical period in general which left European countries in control of vast areas of the world.
In our picture the centre piece is dominated by one family. A mother holds a small baby in her arms while her husband points to the open land of the west, and behind and in front of them are a collection of other settlers, some on foot, others on horseback and of course others still following in the wagon train. And to underline the hardships to be endured in building the new country are the bloodied bandages on the head of one man and the funeral of another in the far distance.
It is a picture I often used in teaching the story of the West and it gets to the heart of the American myth. Change the landscape slightly, and people the picture with the uniforms of any one of half a dozen European armies and their settlers and it could pretty much do for the British in India, the Germans in east Africa, and the Dutch and French in south East Asia.
Now before anyone gets all pedantic I am well aware of the differences in time, intent and outcome behind the “imperialist push” of the 19th century, but there remains that simple truth that one powerful nation set out to expand at the expense of societies less equipped to defend themselves, and justified the eventual conquest, annexation, or mandate in terms of superior religion, culture and political systems.
It is not something that sits comfortably with me, unlike my father’s generation many of whom shared that European notion that they were born to rule the world. I suppose the difference is simple. They grew up when vast areas of the world were ruled from London, while I spent my formative years watching as the Union Flag came down and one of a newly independent ex colony took its place..
All of which is a long roundabout way of thinking about the role of Imperialism in the story of British Home Children. There is no doubt that it was one of the factors that convinced so many well minded people to support the policy of sending thousands of our children to Canada and later Australia.
In a speech in 1904 the Hon Secretary of the Manchester & Salford Boys and Girls Refuges cited the policy as one that not only took children out “of the misery of their former lot” and relived “our own overcrowded centres of population, where the struggle for existence grows fiercer every day” but supplied “our own colony with one of her greatest needs- healthy honest labour.”*
Now this was no new policy the Romans had settled their retired soldiers in recently conquered parts of their empire, with the expectation they would marry into local families.
Of course we are not looking at a government directed policy to take British children to Canada, and when the Empire assisted schemes were introduced after the Great War they were meant for adults. Nor do I think from the research so far that it was the prime motive behind BHC. That remained the one of “rescuing” children from the streets taking them out of the institutions and in the early years away from neglectful and in some cases dangerous parents.
More I suspect it fitted that mood which just assumed we would send our people to the colonies to work the farms and plantations, administer the infra structure and defend the frontiers. In the same way that some who argued for greater intervention to prevent poverty, disease and illiteracy were motivated by the knowledge that there was a vast underclass who were just not fit and therefore unable to play their part in making an Empire which was reinforced when during the second South African War in some towns as many as nine out of ten army recruits were rejected because they were so unfit.
But that is for another story. In the meantime there is much to research on the impact of imperialism and the BHC and a long way to go to uncover more on a programme which Barnado described as “bricks for empire.”
You can follow the Forward Trust which was once the Manchester & Salford Boys and Girls Refuge at their blog
Picture; The Rhodes Colossus, Caricature of Cecil Rhodes after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railway from Cape Town to Cairo, Punch December 10th 1892 and Manchester children bound for Canada, courtesy of the Together Trust