Case Study

Orphans and Colonialism (17th c.)

Why I Taught the Source

The story of colonialism in the early modern era is generally told as one of adults—and primarily adult men—exploring, conquering, and transporting goods and ideas. Historians of women have made it increasingly clear that women are also important actors in this story, but children and adolescents have received little attention. They were also involved, although primarily as members of families, so it is difficult to find much information about them. Orphans were a different story, and they offer an unusual opportunity to see how children fit into the plans and realities of colonial expansion.

The source included here is a suggestion for handling orphans, devised in 1655 by Manoel Severim de Faria, an official for the bishop of Evora in Portugal. In this source he speaks specifically about the role orphaned children could and should play in the Portuguese empire. The source links to many issues in the early modern world, including maritime expansion, gender norms, and changing patterns of poverty, and through these to contemporary issues as well. It provides insight into attitudes toward one particular group of children in an era of competition for wealth and dominance among European powers.

How I Introduce the Source

I have used this source in several different courses: world history, European history, and the history of women and gender. I provide students with guidance and pose a series of questions as we read the source together. It is important that students have the source in front of them, so that every time they answer a question they can point to the specific part of text from which they are drawing information. It is sometimes helpful to have students read the source sentence by sentence until they become more familiar with the official bureaucratese in which it is written. I have found that this can be a useful technique any time a class—even an advanced undergraduate or graduate class—is stuck interpreting materials, for it allows the group to work together as it puzzles through difficult passages.

Students showed better understanding of the source if they were first provided with some background about the way orphans were handled in early modern Europe, which I did orally in some cases and through a written introduction to the source in others. I began by noting that many children in early modern Europe lost one or both parents while they were still young. Most children whose parents had died were taken into the home of a relative, but for some this was not a possibility, and they were placed in a public or church orphanage. Occasionally children who had lost only one parent were placed in orphanages when the surviving spouse determined he or she could not care for them. Children were also left anonymously at the doors of convents or orphanages; most of these foundlings were probably born out of wedlock to poor mothers who could not care for a child while they worked as servants or day-laborers. Many students have heard about children abandoned at church doors and a few have read novels or seen movies about foundlings, so it is useful to discuss the generally dismal circumstances for most children born out of wedlock, and dispel the students' sometimes romantic notions.

Students gain from knowing a bit about the institutional context surrounding orphans, although this does not have to be extensive. The earliest public orphanages in European cities opened in the 14th century, sometimes as parts of city hospitals, and sometimes as independent institutions. Orphanages were supported by church donations, private endowments, and public funds, but the funds provided were often not sufficient to cover all expenses. Thus Severim de Faria's proposal includes much discussion of how to provide financial support for his plans.

Historical background about orphanages can tie into other themes of a course. Not surprisingly, the number of children in orphanages grew dramatically during times of plague or other epidemic diseases, a common topic in world history courses. Orphanages also swelled during times of war. Textbooks often present religious conflicts in early modern Europe in rather abstract terms, as ideas battling ideas, and a focus on what happened to children allows students to better understand the actual impact of religious violence. (This can also be linked with contemporary examples of religious violence.) The same goes for discussions of inflation and other economic dislocations of the 16th century; helping students think about the impact of rapidly-increasing prices for food and land on children makes economic statistics less dry, and also helps them connect the economic issues of the early modern period with those with which they are familiar in their own lives.

Reading the Source

I begin the actual reading of this source with my students by noting that Monoel Severim de Faria sees orphans within the context of social problems and their solutions. We identify these as we work carefully through the text. What are the problems he identifies? We discover a series of these: the lack of "cabin-boys. . .swabbers. . .and sailors" for the Portuguese fleet; poor training for those sailors, so that ships wreck and cargo is lost; vagabonds and people who Severim de Faria thinks are pretending to be poor. (Here you may wish to discuss why he thinks this is so, and link the issue with more recent examples of rhetoric about those taking advantage of social support systems, such as the notion of "welfare queens.") Severim also returns several times to his worries that Portugal is underpopulated. In discussing why he worried about this, we look at maps and at charts about relative European populations in the 16th century.

Once we have identified the problems he cites, we examine the solutions he proposes. Students see right away that the solutions are gender specific: boys are to work on ships and learn how to sail them better, girls are to get married and have more children. This often leads to a broader discussion of gender differences, and I bring in additional information. I note that in terms of gender differences in their life experiences, orphans were not distinct from other children in early modern Europe. In both families and orphanages, children were trained in gender-specific tasks: boys learned to care for animals and make simple items, girls to cook and care for clothing and laundry. When they were old enough, which meant somewhere between seven and 14, children in both families and orphanages often left their parents and moved in with a master or employer, with whom they lived for most of their adolescence. Boys were apprenticed to artisans to learn a trade, while girls worked as servants and gained more domestic skills.

Girls were expected to provide a dowry upon marriage, an issue that students can easily see in the source in Severim de Faria's examples of the way cities such as Milan and Seville "solved" their orphan problem. I have found that my female students of European background are often outraged by the practice of dowry, seeing it—much as Jane Austen did—as "buying a husband." This can lead to a broader discussion of marriage as a means of retaining and transferring wealth, a topic that is often lost in world history classes where the emphasis is generally on less personal economic institutions such as wage labor and commercial exchanges. Based on their reading of any textbook, your students will not be surprised that Severim de Faria connects Seville's growth and prosperity to "commerce with the Indies." Your discussion of marriage can help them see why he links these to "the marriages that take place every year" in Seville as well.

Severim de Faria's proposal is just that—a plan, not a reality. Nevertheless, several early modern governments and private companies established policies based on proposals such as Faria's.This could provide a springboard for student research projects on such public measures as: sending orphans and Jewish children from Portugal to Goa, Brazil, and west Africa; "company daughters" sent by the Dutch East India Company to the East Indies; the filles du roi sent to New France; orphans and other poor children taken off the streets of London and sent as indentured servants to Virginia. Coerced migration is a central part of world history, and involved young people as well as adults.


Reading Severim de Faria's proposal allows students to see one way that children were integrated into plans for colonization, and trace ways in which European class and gender patterns were carried around the world. Students gain skill in interpreting official language from an earlier period, and in assessing the underlying assumptions of the author, both of which are important tools of historical analysis. They recognize that Severim de Faria was a member of Portugal's upper classes, concerned about economic growth and deeply suspicious of the poor. Comparisons with contemporary opinion on the part of wealthy and middle-class Americans are easy to draw. How to handle orphans and children whose parents cannot or will not take care of them are important challenges today, both close to home and globally, and this source leads easily to discussions of contemporary parallels in the situation of children as well. This source could thus easily be combined with other documents about poor, abandoned, or otherwise marginalized children from different eras.

Students initially think of Severim de Faria as positive toward women (because he wanted, in their words, to "help" them), but on closer reading they come to see the values underlying his calls for protection and the provision of dowries. This helps students learn that first readings are not always accurate, and that close attention to the tone as well as the exact language of a document is important.

How to Cite This Source

Merry Wiesner-Hanks, "Orphans and Colonialism (17th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #84, (accessed August 10, 2021).