The Boy Scouts have come to signify a kind of wholesome innocence. But in fact, the Anglo-American Boy Scout movement was a direct outgrowth of the controversial British victory in the Boer War and the American victory in the Philippines. According to historian Mischa Honeck, these victories in South Africa and the Philippines (both wars spanned 1899-1902) came at the cost of “extreme violence used by the colonizers—ranging from scorched earth policies to mass internment to systematic torture.”
Under criticism by anti-imperialists, and feeling they had lost their innocence, elites on both sides of the Atlantic reformulated “imperial expansion as a playful and unimpeachable masculine adventure.” They thought that assuming the innocence of boyhood would clean up their reputation.
“The Boy Scouts prepared boys for empire while allowing men to sanitize their past and present roles in maintaining it,” writes Honeck. He argues that “the history of the Boy Scouts illustrates the cultural attraction of boyhood” for older men in power. He calls this “boyification”—the political romanticizing of boyhood by adult men searching for innocence.
Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts (and its first “Chief Scout”) was a Boer War veteran. This was an an era when elite white Anglo-Saxon Protestants believed there was a crisis in the definition of masculinity, and worried that manhood was “enfeebled by industrialization, urbanization, and overprotective mothering.” Efforts aimed at what Honeck terms the “remasculinizing” of society included “a return to nature, physical discipline, and civic service.” The movement inspired the founding of predecessors to the Scouts, like the Boys’ Brigades in Britain and the Sons of Daniel Boone and the Woodcraft Indians in the U.S. But nothing quite took off like the Boy Scouts.
Scouting could become “a source of empowerment for young people eager to find their voice in an increasingly interconnected world.” It could also point out the hypocrisies of colonialism. Scouts in British Kenya, for example, plainly saw that the Scout’s Fourth Law, which said all Scouts were brothers, was not so. In British India, Honeck notes, officials worried that letting Indians into the Scouts “might train them to be revolutionaries.”
According to Honeck, the era’s fixation on youth was symptomatic of “old men’s aspirations for rebirth.” In a century, many things have changed, but culture and commerce continue to nurse an obsession with fleeting youth.