02 September 2019 | Story Valentino Ndaba
Rebecca Swartz
Researcher delves into the complexity of the British colonial system’s influence on the education of indigenous South African children

Tracking how the government’s involvement in indigenous children’s education changed over time is the subject matter of Dr Rebecca Swartz’s new book, Education and Empire: Children, Race and Humanitarianism in the British Settler Colonies, 1833-1880. Dr Swartz, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the University of the Free State’s International Studies Group, published this monograph four years after completing her PhD.

As a historian of British imperialism in the 19th century and focusing on the intersections between childhood, race, and humanitarianism, Dr Swartz’s research is imperative in understanding the history of the South African education system. Her study draws on materials from the Caribbean and Australia, as well South African archives.

Education as a tool to carve equality
The book is a comparative study which addresses how the government, researchers, missionaries and members of the public viewed the function of education in the 19th-century British Empire. The book tackles a period during which changing conceptions of childhood, the functions of education, responsibilities of government, and the reach of governing indigenous peoples intersected.

Underlying the question of education’s function “were anxieties regarding the status of indigenous people in newly colonised territories: the successful education of their children could show their potential for equality”, says Dr Swartz. While the colonial government and missionaries often agreed that some education should be given to indigenous children, they  wanted to use this to further their own aims which included religious conversion and creating a labour force. Indigenous parents and children themselves were rarely consulted on what they wanted from schooling. 

Schools and race

According to the historical archives sifted through by Swartz, substantial data was gathered which point to the fact that schools played a major role in the production and reproduction of racial differences in the colonies of settlement. 

A shift in thinking took place between 1833 and 1880, both in Britain and the Empire. Education was increasingly seen as a government responsibility. With this new outlook childhood was approached as a time to make interventions into indigenous people’s lives. “This period also saw shifts in thinking about race,” says Dr Swartz. Remnants of that thinking can be seen in present-day South Africa. 

Considering the bigger picture

When Dr Swartz began her research at the University of London in 2012, her main focus was to provide a broader understanding which transcended histories of either the development of ‘white’ schooling for settler children or Marxist histories of education of the apartheid period. “I was interested in finding out more about education for indigenous children during the 19th century, often in the early years of colonial settlement, an area that had received fairly little attention in the literature.”

Interested in a copy of the book?
Click here for a discount flyer for the book. Copies are also available on Amazon.

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