For almost 100 years, it seemed like a good, even wholesome and optimistic idea to take young, working-class and poor British children and resettle them, quite on their own and apart from their families, in Canada, Australia, and southern Rhodesia. The impulse behind this program was philanthropic: to bring disadvantaged children living in crowded cities a better future by settling them in pristine, wide-open spaces, introducing them to nature, and letting them feel the sun on their backs. Yet the program was shot through with eugenic ideas and the racism of the age. British children were emissaries of the "kith and kin" empire, sent to "whiten" its outposts. But they could also be subject to repatriation--sometimes years after having been sent away in the first place--if their "racial fitness" was called into question.
Race, nation, and identity form one of many themes Ellen Boucher
examines in her fascinating, and sometimes painful, book Empire's Children: Child Emigration, Welfare, and the Decline of the British World, 1869-1967
(Cambridge University Press, 2014). Others include the rise and evolution of child psychology, changing ideas about the meaning of family, and the politics of empire. One kind of big picture in Empire's Children
is the shift from a unified British imperial identity to the rise of independent nationalisms throughout the empire. Another kind of big picture, though, comes from the stories told by those who grew up as child migrants and how they later came to perceive those experiences as they reflected back. When you study history you are perennially confronted with the fact that a thing that seemed wonderful not too long ago can later come to appear deplorable. Tracing the influences that produce shifts in moral conscience--whether psychological, social, economic, political, or emotional--is one of history's chief tasks, and it is a task that Boucher accomplishes with great sensitivity and narrative elegance in Empire's Children.