Ambassadors of Empire asks how the movement of child performers along global theatrical circuits served British imperial interests and provoked debate about colonial identity in the mid-nineteenth century. Bridging recent scholarship in theatre and performance studies, childhood studies, postcolonial studies, and literary studies, this multi-year research project considers the importance of performing children to the maintenance of affective ties between metropole and colony. Literary and cultural historians have identified the myriad ways that British children were trained to view themselves as imperial subjects during the Victorian era, while theatre historians have produced important studies of nineteenth-century child performers. This project brings this scholarship together by analyzing how the lengthy world tours undertaken by the most celebrated “Infant Phenomena” affirmed British (or in some cases, American) cultural values and supported colonial hierarchies. By looking at performing children as instruments of culture, it aims to offer new insights into the role of affect in the performance and construction of empire.
Ambassadors of Empire integrates archival research with new historiographical and theoretical approaches. My first objective is to identify the many child performers who moved along transatlantic trade routes in the mid-nineteenth century and prepare a database documenting their travels and performances. Although historians have studied many of the most notable touring companies and performers from this period, none have focused exclusively on touring child performers or considered how their experiences of transatlantic travel compared with those of their adult contemporaries. By offering a more complete account of the number of child performers who moved (in both directions) across the Atlantic between 1835 and 1860, the range of roles and performance styles they presented, and their reception by colonial and metropolitan audiences, I aim to show that children were not only central participants in the establishment of transatlantic performance culture, but that their participation in this performance culture was crucial to Britain’s imperial project.
My second objective is to develop a case study charting the movement of one of the most visible child performers of the period: Jean Margaret Davenport. Davenport made her stage debut in 1835 at the age of seven and quickly developed a reputation as a prodigious talent with a broad repertoire that included Juliet, Richard III, Shylock, and the Scottish hero Rob Roy. She is widely acknowledged as the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ Ninetta Crummles, the falsely advertised “Infant Phenomenon” in Nicholas Nickleby (McLean; Morley; Waters). Unlike Ninetta, however, Davenport appears to have possessed considerable talent and with her father’s strategic marketing, became an international celebrity, traveling extensively throughout the British provinces and later to the United States, Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and the Caribbean colonies.
By examining newspapers, letters, scrapbooks, figurines, sketches, paintings, and other records of Jean Davenport’s performances in libraries and archives located throughout North America, the UK, and the Caribbean, I hope to identify the similarities as well as the differences in the way colonial audiences reacted to the child performer, saw themselves as imperial subjects, and imagined national futures.