King’s College London PhD student Sandra Araya Rojas explores the 19th-century colonisation programme implemented by the Chilean state in indigenous territories. 

Last month’s grim discovery of the remains of 250 children at Kamloops Indian Residential School, Canada, impacted the world.

Just like thousands of other students from the Americas in the 19th century, these children were victims of policies that involved, on one side, building a model of childhood which excluded racially and socially marginalised children, and, on the other side, placing girls at the sentimental side of the reason/emotion binomial while simultaneously oppressing those valuable feelings.

Although colonisation projects have largely been analysed from a historiographic and social political male-centred perspective, rescuing archives of women participating in this process can help to tackle other relevant complexities implicated in it. As Adriana Méndez Rodenas argues in Transatlantic Travels in Nineteenth-Century Latin America: European Women Pilgrims (2014), we should not suppress the shaping of the travelling persona or the aesthetic appeal of the genre of travel writing.

More than a ‘dear teacher’

Some research suggests that the lack of documents written by children, hinders the study of childhood as a cultural construction in the 19th century. However, in the course of my PhD research, From Indians Witches to Mothers of A Noble Race (2019-23), I have had access to sources that problematise this scrutiny and allow us to know, at first hand, the fear, tears and questions of boys and girls who starred in the colonisation process.

A noteworthy example is the epistolary of the Chilean student Elena Martin, daughter of an American businessman living in Concepción and a Catholic Chilean woman. Edited late by her teacher, Methodist missionary Lelia Waterhouse, under the title of One of God’s Lilies (1891), this text is ‘written in her broken English’ and presented to readers without corrections as a proof that ‘spiritual life is constantly developing where Bishop Taylor has opened a way for the entrance of the Word (…) to allow my little daughter, Elenita, the privilege of glorifying God in her father’s native land’ (Waterhouse, 1891: 9).

Despite Waterhouse’s clear intention of not wanting to resign her political and religious status as a missionary from the global North, these letters are the testimony of a girl facing religious intolerance, loneliness, and illness caused by the Pacific War. In contrast with strict processes of infant socialisation idealised in canonical manuals, verses and tales circulating on both sides of the Atlantic in the period, the publication of this book meant for Waterhouse an opportunity to question androcentric programmes focused on territorial invasions, class advancement, institutional leadership and an intact gender system where women were thought to be the invisible caretakers of the nation and churches.

During her stay in Chile between 1878-1883, Lelia Waterhouse was severely criticised as being part of a schoolwork instead of traditional evangelistic activities (like preaching or teaching at church). That’s why the use of the spiritual motherhood topic in her writing can be read as an attempt to justify the validity of her pedagogical effort and also the authority of other working-class women who, like herself, were about to enter public life.

Through her students’ letters, she exceeded the desire to articulate an heroic female self in writing as well as the purpose of homogenising Latin American childhood. More than a ‘dear teacher’ or ‘miss’, Waterhouse wanted to be recognised as a mother-teacher (Sugg, 1978) because of her contribution to the transnational life. By sharing this epistolary, she proposed new codes of learning and released the multiple ways through which women educated themselves, challenging the paradigm of emotional control which pretended to prepare girls for the matrimonial/reproduction market.

One of God’s Lilies’, therefore, is a proof that the civilising project, in addition to being a transoceanic programme which aimed to regulate from the lettered culture the emotional life of children for the purpose of whitening the Americas, also gathered distinctive female narrative voices eluding a single category of analysis. Marginalised voices existed. We must listen to them.

Sandra Araya Rojas is a PhD student at King’s College London’s department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies. Her research examines the literary projects of Anglo-American Protestant women in 19th-century South America.


Cover image: ‘A group of students’ taken in 1905