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Reviewed by:
  • Colonial India in Children’s Literature by Supriya Goswami
  • Michael Heyman (bio)
Colonial India in Children’s Literature. By Supriya Goswami. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Supriya Goswami begins this unique study of colonial children’s literature deceptively, with a scene from Kipling’s “The Undertakers” (1895): a naked English boy barely avoids having his hand bitten off by the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, an Indian crocodile, only to return to the same area years later as conqueror of the crocodile and bringer of modernity to India. Given such an image, we might expect another critical volume on Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” and colonial literature, with only passing interest in such works as children’s literature. Goswami lets us know immediately, however, that her intent is rather different.

There are several notable firsts here. To begin, Goswami combines a study of English, Anglo-Indian (that is, English writers who lived in India), and Indian (Bengali, to be specific) children’s literature—a novel approach with the goal of showing both sides of the colonial divide. Further distinguishing this work is her focus on how thoroughly texts for children are engaged in significant moments in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonial history. The heart of Goswami’s argument moves beyond historicism, however, to show the implications of the agency of colonial children, both British and Indian. She claims that the works she has selected “not only engage in political activism, but also seek to empower children (both real and fictional) by celebrating them as active colonial and anti-colonial agents” (3). We therefore see children like Kipling’s naked boy not so much as would-be conquers, but as conquerors themselves; at cross-purposes, but with similar agency, are empowered Indian children—no victims, but rather direct and capable opponents of British rule. Thus, in part, this study goes beyond colonial issues to take on the nature of child agency itself; it celebrates “children and their ability to become transformative agents of change” (4), as told through the colonial milieu.

Goswami structures her study chronologically around some of the more charged moments in Indian colonial history, pairing each with one work for children that, she argues, engages fully in the respective historical issues. To begin, Mary Martha Sherwood’s The History of Little Henry and His Bearer (1814) is shown to speak, often with surprising ambivalence, to the missionary debates of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Chapter two shows the engagement of Barbara Hofland’s The Captives in India (1834) with the legends of the Indian ruler Tipu Sultan, whose distorted and sensationalized history of despotism haunted the British for decades after his defeat in 1799. In chapter three the Mutiny of 1857, a pivotal moment in colonial history, is the setting for Sara Jeanette Duncan’s [End Page 168] The Story of Sonny Sahib (1894), a tale that tries to repair trust in a fractured colony. The penultimate chapter deals with the “progressive” educational policy of Thomas Macaulay and the resulting class of Western-educated Indians that is, according to Goswami, critiqued in Kipling’s The Jungle Books (1894 and 1895). All of these novels are pro-empire in various ways, and so Goswami’s last chapter is crucial in showing the Indian resistance— the flowering of Indian nationalism around the turn of the twentieth century and the equally revolutionary kind of children’s literature that represents it: new folktales and literary nonsense by Upendrakishore and Sukumar Ray, respectively.

With each chapter Goswami presents a helpful primer on the historical moment, accompanied by rich excerpts from primary sources and thorough research in Western and Indian colonial scholarship. This comes in handy as she then demonstrates just how much these works for children engaged the issues of the day. In the first chapter, for example, we are given a concise history of the empire from the seventeenth century up to the missionary debates in the early nineteenth, when the “Colonial enterprise, which up until then had been largely rooted in economic exploitation, was thus reconceptualized as a civilizing mission” (16)—a “mission,” however, not without great debate in Britain. Enter Sherwood’s Henry, an English boy raised...


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pp. 168-170
Launched on MUSE
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