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Black Peril, White Virtue: Sexual Crime in Southern Rhodesia, 1902-1935. (Reviews).

Black Peril, White Virtue: Sexual Crime in Southern Rhodesia, 1902-1935. By Jock McCulloch (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000. ix plus 272pp. $35.00).

The larger theme of this book is paranoia and paradox. More specifically, it focuses on the obsession of white male colonizers in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with the sexuality of colonized African men, most notably in relation to white women. The imagined "black peril" that resulted from that fixation, Jock McCulloch argues, was a major feature of Rhodesian white settler society between 1902 and 1935, and especially from 1902 to 1916.

That is the paranoia. The paradox is that historically, including the period covered by McCulloch's book, British society did not take sexual assaults against women seriously. British victims of rape generally kept silent, and the perpetrators rarely faced exposure, let alone prosecution. Not so in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. There, by McCulloch's count, the charge of sexual assault resulted in the execution of some twenty men, along with the imprisonment and flogging of another two hundred. All of the alleged victims were white women, while all of the accused were colonized black men. Few of the convictions were warranted by the evidence. McCulloch adjudges that many of those convicted "were at worst guilty of petty theft or common assault" (p. 185). None received anything that could be remotely described as a fair trial. The methods may have been rough, and they certainly involved a sharp departure from British norms in dealing with sexual assault, but the protection of white virtue from the al leged black peril demanded nothing less.

Settler colonial societies like Southern Rhodesia--with their relatively large European populations, as compared to the non-settler colonies--were especially prone to the racial and sexual anxieties that produced black-peril outbursts. Neighboring South Africa, with its even larger white-settler population, experienced similar "moral panics."

The Southern Rhodesian settlers, never to be outdone in the arena of anti-African demagogy, were among the leaders in both instigating the phenomenon and responding to it. Thus in 1903 the colonial legislature--a body consisting entirely of white men, a combination of individuals appointed by the authorities and elected by the settlers--unanimously passed a black-peril law. The measure prescribed the death penalty for attempted rape. It was the first such law in the British Empire, and it came at a time when other British colonies, like Australia, were abolishing capital punishment for actual rape.

To the Rhodesian settlers, black peril posed a threat that was singular in its communal nature. Unlike the occasional case of an African charged with murdering a white person, black-peril assaults, McCulloch argues, "were perceived not just as an attack upon the body of a woman but as an attack upon the white community itself" (p. 4). Prosecutors faced few hurdles in black-peril cases. Colonial juries--another all-male and all-white institution during the period in question--were quick to convict black men accused of sexually assaulting white women. Although eschewing the worst aspects of US-style racist vigilantism, such as lynching--a point McCulloch may have profitably made, but does not--Rhodesian black-peril cases were no less choreographed. The brief kangaroo proceedings that passed for trials went hand in hand with the public expression of white outrage, as exemplified in rallies, fulminations in the press, and demands for still tougher action by the colonial legislature and the administration. "Few ch arged with such crimes gave evidence in their defense. They were tried in a foreign language under a belittling nickname and spent most of their trial silent and probably uncomprehending at the ritual being played out" (p. 27).

McCulloch identifies two central features of the phenomenon. The first and most obvious is that black peril was a colonial malady. There was little relationship between perception and reality. The fear of assault ran well ahead of allegations of rape, not to mention actual rapes. The second central feature of black peril speaks volumes of the real fears of its chief instigators: the men of the ruling race. Curiously, of the many laws directed against black peril, only one--the death penalty law of 1903--targeted offenders. All the other legal measures focused on the potential victims: white women, whose sexuality they sought to regulate. The colonial state, in sum, legally forbade white women from voluntarily having sexual intercourse with African men, which acts were deemed immoral and indecent. Thus the Immorality and Indecency Suppression Ordinance prescribed a term of two-years imprisonment for any white woman who "by words, writing, signs, or suggestion enticed a native to have illicit sex" (p. 5). This law, however, was seemingly redundant, since the legal system denied, a priori, the possibility of consensual sex between women of the ruling race and colonized men. Any such contact, indeed expression of any such interest, automatically constituted sexual assault.

Southern Rhodesia's male colonial rulers and settlers obviously distrusted the sexual proclivities of colonized men. Yet these men, as seen, also suspected white women. The virtue of white womanhood could not be assumed; it had to be enforced. Toward that end, colonial officials trotted out medical authority to support legislative control. Exposure to tropical climate, contemporary medical opinion averred, produced nymphomania in white women.

The tropics may well have had a similar effect on white men. If so, they were much less concerned about policing their own sexuality: none of the black-peril laws applied them. Thus the real problem of cross-racial sexual assaults in Southern Rhodesia--that by white men against African women--garnered little attention from the authorities. White men had colonized the land. All that dwelled therein, and certainly the colonized women, were theirs by right of conquest. The legal system, as constructed by these same men, would not interfere with that right.

The duplicity did not sit well with white women. Consequently, the organizations they founded to advance their gender and racial concerns took up the subject of black peril. These organizations opposed, among other things, miscegenation and the sexual exploitation of African women--though not, to be sure, out of any sense of sisterhood, but rather as a way to combat black peril, which, white women agreed, was a real and burning issue. Black peril, according to this logic, constituted a kind of payback: black men assaulted white women to avenge the wanton deflowering of African women by white men. The organizational skills and political capital acquired by white women in the course of the agitation over black peril helped to explain their comparatively early franchise victory: Rhodesian women obtained the right to vote in 1919--well ahead of most leading western countries, including the colonial powers.

In the crusade against black peril, white women paid special attention to the gender composition of the domestic-service industry. There was no escaping the fact that the vast majority of domestic servants were black men, while most black-peril cases involved domestic servants. White women organizations advocated (African) female domestic labor as an antidote to black peril--a proposal that had the added virtue of helping to solve the overall labor problem. Male labor thus freed up could be redirected to other critical economic sectors, notably mining and agriculture. This suggested solution, however, failed on two grounds. First, the cheap labor provided by colonized men was possible only because the burden of social production was assumed by colonized women, who largely remained in the countryside while the men went to the work in the white-dominated economy; that is, in the cities, in the mining centers, and on commercial farms. Second, the colonialists, including white women, attacked urban African women, whom they accused as being vectors of syphilis. Of course, for white women, the principal means of transmitting syphilis--a disease introduced by the colonialists--would have been their own husbands and lovers, a topic on which they remained publicly mute.

McCulloch offers what appears to be a rational and reasonable explanation for black peril. He sees a direct correlation between accusations of sexual assault and labor shortage, the very moments at which the colonizers were most conscious of their dependence on the colonized. More generally, McCulloch believes the so-called moral panics represented a sense of powerlessness on the part of white men. "Black Peril," he concludes, "was a rich metaphor. It symbolized the erosion of white male authority over women, it was an emblem of racial pollution, and it suggested that cities were unsafe. It was also a reminder of the threat of armed resistance. Each of these fears was predicated upon the weakness of the BSAC state" (p. 83).

Yet, it is hardly sufficient just to assert historical causations. Those causations, more importantly, must be demonstrated. McCulloch repeatedly does the former, but not nearly enough of the latter. His argument, to be sure, is epistemologically attractive. That argument, however, would have been far more convincing if, for example, he had used the extant studies on Rhodesian labor to chart the supply and demand for workers, thereby showing a correlation with the rise and decline of black-peril outbursts. Similarly, concrete demonstration of his argument would have required showing a direct link between black peril and the white settlers' campaign against what he calls "the BSAC state," that is, the British South African Company, the private commercial venture that doubled as Southern Rhodesia's government during the first three decades of colonial rule. McCulloch fails both to make such a linkage and to explain why the campaign against the BSAC, which was won in 1923 when the settlers assumed direct control of the government, did not result in an end to the black-peril phenomenon, which by his own account continued for another twelve years.

There are other problems. McCulloch, quite egregiously, normalizes the very whiteness that his book otherwise critiques, thereby reproducing the negating language of Rhodesian settler society. Thus we read repeatedly about "women," "Rhodesian public," and so forth. In all these cases, the author really means "white," yet that crucial qualification is not included. Few such omissions are made in respect of the colonized people. Here, McCulloch is much more scrupulous in his use of adjectives--as in "black," "African" and, all too often, "native," a colonial derogative about which the author should have warned potentially unsuspecting readers, if only with the use of the occasional inverted comma.

The book also contains some easily avoidable editorial mistakes. For instance, Norman Etherington is spelled "Hetherington" in both the text and the index, even as the correct spelling appears in the footnotes and bibliography. There is as well a certain amount of repetitiveness, which a good editorial overhaul should have eliminated.

Its shortcomings aside, though, the book has considerable merit. McCulloch has sifted through the archival record to produce a highly readable study of the black-peril mania, one that offers rich insights into many other aspects of the colonial conundrum. In so doing, he has provided a valuable service to students of colonialism far beyond the geographical confines of Southern Rhodesia, where the disturbing drama he charts was acted out.
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Author:West, Michael O.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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