Making the Malleable Child: Emancipation, Elementary Education, and the Missionary Articulation of Childhood in Jamaica, 1838–65

Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:50 PM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
Christopher R. Bischof, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
This paper explores the decoupling of Afro-Jamaican children and adults in the missionary imagination following emancipation in 1838.  In the campaign for abolition, missionaries had largely elided children and adults under the general category of enslaved persons whose moral, religious, and economic potential was virtually unlimited if only the yoke of slavery could be removed.  However, the social and economic context of the years following emancipation increasingly led missionaries to distinguish between Afro-Jamaican children and adults, particularly in their writings on elementary education.  They articulated a vision of children as amiable, malleable, and naturally inclined to religion.  In short, children came to be seen as the salvation of Jamaica, the hope for its future.  Missionaries cultivated this representation of children in opposition to adults.  They depicted both teachers and parents as socially and culturally grasping figures – mimic men whose emulation of British mannerisms and socially grasping nature led them to live secular, individualistic, and largely amoral lives.  Drawing on missionary letters, reports, and pamphlets on elementary education, I argue that missionaries came to depict Afro-Jamaican children and adults as fundamentally different not only in terms of their stage of development, but temperamentally.  By locating these discourses within the broader context of planter-missionary tensions and growing economic hardship across the island – perceived to be the result of freed adults “fleeing” the estates thanks to ideas planted in their heads by missionaries – I suggest that missionaries used the tropes of the malleable child and the adult beyond redemption to disclaim responsibility for the plight of the island and cultivate continued patronage from supporters in Britain.