Perhaps the most terrible and enduring justification for empire is that it is utopian; that empire can terraform land, reform the body politic, and transmute people, each on a vast scale and to (someone’s) radical benefit. In 1618 the Virginia Company tabled a formal petition before the London Common Council, asking that one-hundred poor and vagrant children, who ‘lie in the streets… having no place of abode nor friends to relieve them’ be shipped to the fledgling colony of Jamestown at the city’s expense. Seventy-five boys and twenty-five girls were transported for ‘running wild in the streets’, for being vagrant, on 27 February 1618. Only a small number of these children survived the harsh realities of colonial life, and only a fraction of those thrived. By 1638, the ‘Bridewell boy’ Nathaniel Tatum had his name patented to one-hundred acres of land along the Appomattox river. The fate of Nathaniel represented for contemporaries an exact and desired outcome of Empire; an end to poverty. As a poor and vagrant child Nathaniel was—in effect—a mere idle body to improve, an untapped resource to deploy, grist for the mill of British colonialism. A wide swath of early modern British society essentially believed that empire abroad could end poverty at home, and that forcing the criminal, vagrant, or simply problematic poor abroad to carve a caesura between their needs and the emerging domestic welfare state was an ethical exchange. Paupers, vagrants, and petty criminals who accordingly found themselves ‘projected’ outwards into the British Atlantic became the first subjects, and the first victims, of British ‘welfare colonialism’. There were to be many others.
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Live Q/A on 9th December
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