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  • Intimacy's Empire:Children, Servants, and Missionaries in Mary Martha Sherwood's "Little Henry and his Bearer"
  • Dara Rossman Regaignon (bio)

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Little Henry explaining the scriptures to Boosy from the 1867 edition of Mrs. Sherwood's The Story of Little Henry and his Bearer Boosy

The little white boy sits between the Indian's legs, book in hand, his face turned away from the viewer to engage directly with the dark-skinned man. Their features are schematic, but racial identity as revealed by color is clear. Their intimacy is also clear, from the tender curve of the man's body as he leans toward the child to the casually comfortable position in which they sit. Their intimacy absorbs both man and child; neither looks away—into the house, across the room, at the white man who watches them from the doorway. Even the book appears almost forgotten, so intent are they on one another.

This image is from an 1867 edition of Mary Martha Sherwood's best-selling Evangelical tale for children, "The History of Little Henry and his Bearer" (1814). Immediately popular, "Little Henry" was continuously in print for seventy years, going through eighteen printings in the first decade after its publication. This scene occurs just after Henry, raised by Indian servants in an Anglo-Indian household, has been converted to Christianity. His first desire is to convert his Indian bearer, Boosy.1 In both this story and "The History of Little Lucy and her Dhaye" (1823)—a female variation of the earlier story—Sherwood presents the children's intimacy with and love for their Indian caretakers as an early impediment to their development of a strong English identity; she then offers Evangelical Anglican Christianity, with its emphasis on the missionary impulse to convert others, as a solution to that problem.2 Sherwood conflates religion and national identity; the mechanism of the children's religious lessons is instruction in the English language (both written and oral). Conversion "saves" Henry and Lucy by teaching them that some religions and cultures are right while others are wrong. The children's subsequent efforts to "save" Boosy (Henry's bearer) and Piarreé (Lucy's dhaye) offer a narrative of the intimacy between British children and Indian adults that is ultimately productive of, rather than a threat to, a Christian British empire. The Evangelical missionary impulse reverses the direction of social influence: rather than being socialized by their Indian caretakers, Anglo-Indian children "civilize" them.3

My question in this essay is twofold. In seeking to explain how Sherwood transforms her vulnerable child-protagonists into figures for imperial hegemony and expansion, I also seek to understand why "Little Henry and his Bearer" and "Little Lucy and her Dhaye" were so popular with nineteenth-century readers.4 It is my contention that British and Anglo-Indian audiences embraced these stories because they acknowledge and then defuse a familial (and familiar) problem: British children born in India, cared for by Indian servants, could become too intimate with and fond of Indians and Indian culture to enforce British political and ideological dominance with the necessary ruthless conviction. By depicting Anglo-Indian children, safely converted to Christianity, as an ideal class of missionaries because of their early and intimate connection to particular Indians and consequent understanding of Indian cultures, Sherwood provides her readers with a colonial authority that derives its strength, dominance, and commitment to interference from the very conditions that make it vulnerable. In Sherwood's hands, threats to imperial identity ultimately reinforce it.

Sherwood's contribution to imperial ideology lies not simply in her comforting conversion of peril into opportunity in the fictional realm; her stories are meant to inspire their readers to missionary action. Henry dies, calmly confident of his own redemption, while relentlessly "attacking" Boosy's religious beliefs.5 His death appears necessary to Boosy's conversion. In the 1842 sequel, The Last Days of Boosy, the Bearer of Little Henry, Sherwood presents Boosy's adoption of the Christian faith as the direct product of his love for the lost Henry. But Boosy is not the only person pushed into action by Henry's death: "Little [End...


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pp. 84-95
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