Blog and News

Education and Empire: What’s Florence Nightingale got to do with it? By Dr. Rebecca Swartz

What did Florence Nightingale have to do with colonial education? That was a question I had to ask myself when I came across her 1863 survey of education and health of Indigenous children in colonial schools in the British Empire.  Nightingale’s study, which included statistics from one hundred and forty-three schools in South Africa, Australia, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Canada and Sierra Leone, concluded that education did not lead to any negative health outcomes for Indigenous children, but it must be adapted to local circumstances to achieve the best results.

Nightingale’s conclusion about education being adapted to the needs of different groups is a major focus of my new book, Education and Empire: Children, Race and Humanitarianism in the British Settler Colonies, 1833-1880, recently published by Palgrave Macmillan. Nightingale used information sent to her by colonial officials and missionaries to conduct her study. Many of her correspondents emphasised the necessity of including ‘industrial education’ in Indigenous schools. What exactly this meant is something that varied widely according to context. In England, industrial education was associated with factory labour and workhouse schools, while in the settler colonies, industrial training was used to create a semi-skilled labour force and included skills ranging from ploughing and planting to basket weaving and brickmaking.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, as attitudes towards race became increasingly rigid, education was more often differentiated along racial lines. At the same time, in both metropolitan and colonial contexts, education was being constructed as a government responsibility, rather than a decision that should be made exclusively by the family.

For Indigenous children in the major sites of my study – Natal, South Africa, and Western Australia – this meant that colonial governments began to see education provision as part of their responsibility towards colonised people. In the 1830s, influential humanitarian thinkers urged colonial officials to ‘civilise’ Indigenous children by converting them to Christianity, and teaching them to read and write. They argued that this would make colonisation beneficial to Indigenous people. However, as the century progressed, settlers’ desire for land and labour were more often privileged over the needs of Indigenous populations themselves in these two colonies. This meant that schools, and education more broadly, were used to construct and entrench racial difference in the colonies of settlement. By giving different groups of people different kinds of education, racial boundaries were reinforced.

The survey was, in Nightingale’s own words, ‘incomplete’ – she had struggled to get responses to her enquiries about colonial schools. The survey, however, is unique in its scope, and does highlight the fact that even though there had been calls from the imperial government for local colonial governments to provide education, this was often overlooked.  The responses she did receive showed that missionaries were central to record keeping and provision. For example, a local teacher in Western Australia, Ann Camfield, sent Nightingale a response to her survey. Camfield was dissatisfied with what Nightingale did with her data: Camfield saw it as over generalised, and taken out of context.  As Tiffany Shellam has argued, Nightingale’s aim had been to engage with racial theories that posited that Aboriginal people were a ‘dying race’.[1] In Camfield’s view, this British nurse did not understand the reality of being a teacher in a young colony, where settlers consistently lobbied against expenditure on Indigenous people.

While this survey did not make any impact in terms of policy, and is one of Nightingale’s lesser known pieces of writing, it nonetheless highlights how information about colonial schooling was (or was not) being collected. It also shows how women like Nightingale contributed to a central debate regarding British imperialism, race and education. Her survey, interested in the effects of ‘civilisation’ on Indigenous children, added to a growing body of knowledge about the nature of colonial encounters, and more specifically, the meaning of race in the British Empire.

[1] Tiffany Shellam, “‘A Mystery to the Medical World”: Florence Nightingale, Rosendo Salvado and the Risk of Civilisation’, History Australia, 9 (2012), 109–134.

Dr. Rebecca Swartz is a historian of British imperialism in the nineteenth century, focusing on the intersections between childhood, race, and humanitarianism. Her research interests include histories of education, child migration, and missions in settler colonial contexts. She is currently working on histories of childhoods in the post-emancipation Cape colony, with a focus on the relationship between understandings of childhood, freedom, and labour.Rebecca recently published her first monograph entitled Education and Empire: Children, Race and Humanitarianism in the British Settler Colonies, 1833-1880 in the Palgrave Cambridge Studies in Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series.