Children of Empire: Rereading Katherine Mansfield’s ‘How Pearl Button was Kidnapped’ (1912)

Roslyn Jolly


Katherine Mansfield’s story of a white (Pakeha) child kidnapped by Maori women and taken to their community is formally distinguished by its creation of a ‘naïve’ perspective on colonialism through the use of a young child as the narrative focalizer. The story illuminates and problematizes the historical question of the place of children in empire. With reference to works by Stevenson and Ballantyne, this essay discusses the relation between Mansfield’s short story and the nineteenth-century tradition of imperial adventure fiction featuring child protagonists. It additionally compares the childhood perspective on colonialism offered by Mansfield with the ‘authorized’ perspectives presented in imperial literature specifically produced for child readers by publishing outlets such as the Religious Tract Society. Mansfield’s story, it will be seen, unsettles a hegemonic tradition of using children to filter an ‘innocent’ perspective on the colonial other. The question of the other is the major theoretical issue explored in this story, which explores the dynamic of ‘othering’ in an imperial context as a two-way, mutually determining process. Pearl is as exotic to her Maori hosts as they are to her. By leaving unresolved the question of the kidnappers’ motives, the story presents empire as an indeterminate space of mutual fear and desire between colonizers and colonized.

Full Text: PDF