Fostering Subjects: Lives and Labour of Fostered African Children in the Sierra Leone Crown Colony
Fosterage describes the exchange of children, within or outside the extended family. Who could foster or be fostered was determined by a range of social and economic factors, related to specific conceptions of childhood. In 19th century Sierra Leone, families in the colony fostered both children rescued from captured slave ships and children from communities neighboring the colony who would then work in their homes as domestic servants. This relationship was believed to promote ‘civilization’ of Africans by training the foster-children in domestic work and exposing them to new customs, habits and learning. But it also worked to ‘civilize’ the foster parents. By fostering children, Sierra Leoneans could free themselves from domestic labor, allowing them to make a claim to a genteel social superiority.
I argue that this practice in the colony drew strongly on existing practices of fostering in the region. Fostering existed as both a childcare practice and a means to establish links between different families in West Africa before the arrival of the settlers. In the 19th century, these fosterage arrangements formed a vital part, not only of integrating new arrivals into the colony, but also of building and strengthening ties with the surrounding area. Fostered children were active not only in helping to construct the Sierra Leonean community but in linking the settlers with the culture and society of their neighbors.
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