Mines, minstrels, and masculinity: race, class, gender, and the formation of the South African working class, 1870-1900.
In an insightful critique of Appadurai's Modernity at Large, Gijsbert Oonk (2000) points out that, although Appadurai's ideas provide stimulus to the sociological imagination and open the door to new and exciting types of empirical sociological research, Appadurai himself "gives us few clues as how to use his `scapes' in empirical research" (p. 157). This grounding in empirical socio-historical research, Oonk suggests, is necessary if scholars hope to "bring postmodernists' notions and discussions about globalization beyond what world historian Janet Abu-Lughod has termed `the global babble'" (p. 157).
This essay, thus, represents an attempt to take up the challenges posed by Oonk and Abu-Lughod by analyzing a particular historical instance of the transnational flow of an image and its accompanying ideology. The image I am interested in is that of the "black dandy" of the nineteenth century American blackface minstrel stage The "direction" that this particular cultural artifact "flows" in is from the minstrel stages of North America to the diamond fields of Kimberley, South Africa. I argue that the discovery of diamonds in 1868 facilitated the rapid growth of Kimberley as an urban center where black and white males were forced into close and unpredictable proximity, and where they forged relationships that alternated between mutual cooperation and dependence and fierce rivalry and competition. The rapidity with which economic relations changed threw conventional class and social relationships into upheaval and resulted in a tremendous amount of class-based anxiety and insecurity on the part of European males. These anxieties and insecurities were not only caused by the presence of black men as sources of economic competition but were also projected onto them in the form of fantasies about hyper-sentient black male bodies. In particular, it was the disruptive figure of the "Nigger Dandy" or "Nigger Swell" who was considered both the object upon whom most of these insecurities about masculinity and money were projected and the cause of such projection The Dandy signified the contradictions and conflicts that were the inevitable result of the multiple transitions that marked the emergence of mining as the basis of the South African economy.
My contention is that ideo-scapes and media-scapes have a much longer and more complicated history than Appadurai's framework suggests. Although Appadurai is correct that modern forms of mass media, particularly movies and television, have played a critical role in reshaping identities, I would like to suggest that these processes were well underway prior to the rise of modern forms of mediated communication by exploring the impact of traveling minstrel troupes, which were already performing in South Africa by 1862 (Coplan, 1985; Erlmann, 1991). Long before the advent of television or movies, these minstrel shows were, according to Christopher Ballantine (1993), "the main conduits which transmitted American examples and through which they were sought" (p. 18).
Before I begin my analysis, however, it is necessary to take a brief excursion through the history of diamond mining in Kimberley, paying close attention to the racial and class tensions that marked the evolution of South Africa's first major industrial center. The first important transition occurred when the South African economy shifted its basis from the export of agricultural products to the export of precious minerals. The second occurred when the industry itself shifted from being dominated by local capital and committed to the support of a white labor aristocracy to being dominated by foreign capital and more interested in accruing profits than promoting racial solidarity. The first period, which spanned the years 1870-1877, was popularly known as the period of small scale digging and "digger's democracy" wherein small scale share working predominated and the average claimholder employed four or five laborers (usually African) to do the heavy work of excavating the claim. These diamonds were sold directly to independent diamond dealers or to the representatives of European merchants. The second period, which spanned the years from 1877 onwards, was marked by a shift in property ownership. Large conglomerates bought up individual mines, and mining was centralized through the agency of joint-stock companies that engaged primarily in underground mining. These shifts called forth changes not only in the position of white labor relative to capital but also in how the white subject was stereotyped and represented. These changes, in turn, profoundly impacted how white male laborers imagined and represented their own whiteness and maleness in relation to themselves, one another, and Africans.
After the discovery of the "Star of South Africa" in 1869, a veritable feeding frenzy began as "Diamond Fever" struck South Africa and the wider world. The advent of diamond mining forever altered the economic and social relationships between Africans and Europeans and radically changed South Africa's position in the world economy. By 1870, hundreds of diamond seekers had converged on the area that was later to become Kimberley and staked out claims in the three areas where diamonds were most plentiful--two farms known as Dortsfontein and Bultfontein, and the banks of the Vaal River. At the outset, mining seemed like an ideal way for a man of little or no means to make his fortune. The industry was dominated by small holding and was simply an affair of digging dirt and sorting through debris. Mining was dominated either by families--the father doing the heavy work of digging, with his wife and children sorting and sifting through the debris looking for stones--or by single diggers with a few servants. Technology was rudimentary, consisting of little more than a pick and shovel and a few sieves for separating the dirt from the stones, and production was carried out on a small scale with no more than four laborers working a single claim. Very soon, however, diggers faced the threat of consolidation and domination by bigger (if not yet big) capital--in short, the forces that would eventually force them out of the industry.
In 1869 the owner of the Bultfontein farm sold it to a group of Port Elizabeth-based merchants. They in turn sold the farm to a group of London-based diamond merchants who purchased the farm of Dortsfontein in addition. The absentee owners promptly ordered all the diggers off the farms unless they paid a monthly license fee. As more people began to crowd the fields, the prices of claims skyrocketed. The high prices put claim ownership beyond the reach of most and encouraged the growth of "shareworking," whereby the owner of a claim would allow "squatters" to prospect on his claim in exchange for up to half of their profits. This put diggers at the mercy of the claim owner who, in turn, was at the mercy of the merchants, who raised rents with impunity, and the banks. Many claimholders were forced to gamble their future with private moneylenders--many of whom were merchants and lawyers--since local banks would not accept claims as collateral. Bankers and moneylenders would call in loans, foreclose on diggings, and bankrupt diggers with impunity.
Many claimholders went bankrupt and were forced to give or sell their claims to wealthier claimholders, thus making the industry even more centralized. Richard Southey, the governor of Kimberley, attempted to stem the tide toward centralization by intervening in the economy to ensure that the small-scale digger would be protected. In 1874 he sought to legally limit the rents landowners could charge as well as place further limits on the number of claims one individual or company could hold. He also took steps to make it possible for diggers to use claims as collateral for bank loans. However, the landed proprietors, with the help of influential London backers, were able to block all of Southey's initiatives (Thomas 1996; Turrell, 1987; Worger, 1987).
Governor Lanyon, who succeeded Southey after his dismissal in 1875, sealed the fate of small holding and inaugurated the era of big capital when he repealed the claim limitation law and thus removed all limits on the number of claims any single person or company could hold. Consolidation continued apace, making it much more difficult for men of meager means to become involved in the diamond trade. Whereas in the early 1870s an initial investment of 200 [pounds sterling] would have sufficed, by the late 1870s anyone who hoped to make a go of it in the industry would need between 2,000 [pounds sterling] and 5,000 [pounds sterling] in start-up capital. Thus, the industry quickly fell into fewer and fewer hands. By 1879, twelve private companies or partnerships controlled three-quarters of the Kimberley mine, leading a contributor to the Diamond News (1877, April 24) to comment that "it is evident that the working of the Kimberley mine is passing by the force of circumstances into the hands of companies and capitalists."
Few claimholders sold their property by choice. Usually problems like floods and falling reef and their attendant financial difficulties forced them to sell their claims for whatever they could get. Given that the merchants and wealthier claimholders were in charge of the boards that allocated the resources for clearing fallen reef and pumping out water, it is little wonder that cleanup efforts suffered repeated delays and drove even more claimholders into bankruptcy.
Centralization, although it did make a few men very wealthy in the short term, did not solve the pressing problems of labor and technology that would guarantee long-term success. The industry desperately needed investment capital, a problem the larger claimholders tried to address by going public in 1880 and trying to attract foreign investment by establishing joint-stock companies. Speculation ran rampant and, as a result, these ventures were extremely unstable, claimholders often floated companies that were extremely overvalued, thus making foreign capital extremely wary of investing. Overvalued stocks, coupled with a lack of investment, meant that current capital investors could not realize profits on their investments, and a number of ventures collapsed. Eventually it became clear that the only way the industry would survive was if the remaining claimholders amalgamated and a single huge company controlled the entire output of the mines. It was quickly realized that it was only "by royal monopoly alone, or by means of great and powerful companies [could] jewel digging be made a thriving industry" (Boyle, 1873, p. 377).
Through a combination of coercion, double-dealing, and shrewd strategizing, Diamond mining magnate Cecil Rhodes and his partners in DeBeers eventually secured 622 registered claims in the DeBeers mine, and on April 1, 1880, Rhodes and four other partners floated the DeBeers Mining Company Limited (Thomas, 1996). The same men who ran this corporation exercised a dominant role in Kimberley and Cape politics, and as they became wealthier, their political power increased proportionately. Thus, a mere decade after the first hopeful prospectors descended on Kimberley, they had been entirely pushed out of the industry and it was dominated by one huge and seemingly all-powerful conglomerate. The transition from small holding to monopoly was a painful one for whites and blacks alike, and it is against these tumultuous events that the dominant stereotypes of the time must be read.
A DANGEROUS MADNESS
Noting the number of men who gave up everything in the hopes of becoming rich on the fields, the Cape Argus (1870, September 6) pronounced the whole business "a dangerous madness." The diamond diggings soon became the focal point for the ambitions and aspirations of hundreds of Africans, Coloreds, and whites from different parts of the Cape and beyond. In Kimberley, the most salient black/white relationships were not between missionary and convert or settler and farm laborer. Rather, the interaction between digger and independent African laborer or between mining company and miner set the tone for race relations. Initially, a very high proportion of the original claimholders was either Colored or African. In 1874, 120 out of 130 of the claimholders on the Bultfontein mine were blacks.
The extremely limited area in which diamonds were found, however, made competition for claims intense. Indeed, the genesis of popular stereotypes about and anxieties towards Africans can be traced back to this initial competition between black and white diggers over claims, coupled with the economic and social strains white claimholders suffered as the result of increased centralization. For this was the first time that "the black man was seen not only as the white man's servant, but as his economic rival. A fateful corner had been mined" (Thomas, 1996, p. 117). As a contemporary observer noted:
In the early days of the Fields a great deal of animosity toward the natives existed. Part of this feeling originated from many white men not possessed of claims being jealous of their black brethren digging at DuToit's Pan and Bultfontein. (Matthews, 1887, p. 209)
When small-scale digging predominated, white diggers held patronizing, but not overly negative, views about the "raw" Africans who labored under them, doing the bulk of the heavy work on the claims. Evaluations of "raw" Africans were based principally on their propensity to labor as well as on their honesty--certain ethnic groups being favored above others in this regard. Jerome Babe (1872/1972), for example, ranked his African laborers by ethnic group:
The best laborers come from the far north, on the Limpopo; they are called Kaffirs, (1) and are quite black, and generally honest. Captain Gordon and Mr. Green have three of these blacks each, and they trust them altogether in mining, washing, and sorting and I have frequently seen them hand their masters the diamonds that they had found perhaps the day before. (p. 49)
Charles Payton (1872), a digger, concurred that:
[T]he Kaffirs are considered the best and most trustworthy labourers, and of the Kaffirs the Zulus have the best reputation, and perhaps the Basutos next. ... The raw, untutored, unclad Kaffirs, fresh from their kraals up the mountains, are by far the best and most trustworthy workmen. (p. 137)
And M. Cowan (1872) marveled that the "Kaffirs so far from being insolent and saucy are actually civil and occasionally obliging ... everyone is stunned by his non-objection, nay, even willingness, to work" (p. 142).
White claimholders reserved the lion's share of their opprobrium for African diggers who were independent claimholders. Very early on, white diggers sought to impose measures that would eliminate Africans as a source of competition. They argued that African diggers should be denied the right to hold digging licenses and attempted to justify their actions by claiming that African claimholders were acting as fronts for the purchase and sale of stolen diamonds (known popularly as "Illicit Diamond Buying" or simply "IDB"). On Saturday, January 13, 1872, a public meeting was held at Market Square to consider the question of digging licenses. The meeting passed the following resolution:
In the opinion of this meeting it is undesirable that licenses for claims be granted to natives, for the following reasons--first, because it would render the checking of theft of diamonds an impossibility; secondly, because any native allowed to dig for diamonds must also be allowed to sell them, and consequently no check could be placed on native holders of license turning diamond brokers for dishonest servants; thirdly, because it might cause great poverty and destitution amongst those unlucky, while in all probability, the more fortunate would spend their money on liquor and frequent crimes and disturbances would be the result. (Diamond News, 1872, January 17)
White claimholders hid their anxieties about black competition behind a narrative of criminality and gestures towards paternalism. Narratives of criminality were often articulated in tandem with narratives of civilization, as deficiencies in the latter were generally considered productive of the former. The following editorial in the Diamond Field (1874, October 10) is typical in its efforts to naturalize criminality and mark deviance as inherent to the African by virtue of biology and upbringing:
[Natives] are held to be just as capable as civilized men of holding property and exercising rights which entail duties to society, which ignorant and unlettered as they are, unimbued with moral sense or religious feeling, they neither admit nor practice. Again and again have the plundered claimholders besought their rulers to deny the coloured person the privilege to hold mining property or to obtain miner's certificates.
The diggers' pursuit of their economic interests was effected through paternalistic discourses about "Native Degeneracy" through alcohol abuse and legalistic discourses around theft and "Illicit Diamond Buying." Thus, the traffic in stolen diamonds and the threat to productivity caused by drunkenness were constructed as the greatest threats to the industry. The combined effect of these discourses was to obscure the centrality of African labor to the survival of the industry and deny the exploitative labor relations between blacks and whites upon which profitability depended. Furthermore, they served to mask the extent to which the small claimholders' increasing economic hardships and widespread white poverty in the city were due to increased centralization and the exploitative actions of merchants and wealthy claimholders. Thus, class antagonisms were (re)constructed as moral and racial matters and the black body became a crucial site upon which social relations were mapped.
The meanings that adhered in popular white stereotypes were inextricable from class conflicts between different sections of the white laboring classes, between capital and labor, and between whites and blacks. Therefore, one must closely attend to shifting class formations in the white and black communities to properly understand the emergence of the core body of stereotypes that were so critical a part of the consciousness of Kimberley's white citizens.
CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN
In his study of blackface minstrelsy and the American working class, Eric Lott (1993) theorizes that exploitative labor systems must devise cultural strategies that simultaneously remember and deny the "inescapability of the body in the economy" (p. 118). In antebellum America, blackface minstrelsy performed this cultural work by "invoking the black male body as a powerful cultural sign of sexuality as well as a sign of the dangerous, guilt-inducing physical reality of slavery but relying on the derided category of race finally to dismiss both" (Lott, 1993, p. 118). He goes on to note that the process of the formation of the working class was also, in part, expressed by and through racialized representations. "The social conflicts in which race and class interpenetrated and contradicted each other were acutely registered in the cultural floors and spaces that arose to ease them" (Lott, 1993, p. 71). The familiar coterie of racialized stereotypes, from "Zip Coon" to "Jim Crow," provided an outlet for working out various dimensions of white racial subjectivity as they helped to channel anxieties about gender and class into the more "manageable" arena of race. It was the figure of the urban black Dandy, "the only current social type combining a superior class position with racial overtones" (Lott, 1993, p. 134), that, I will argue, captured the hearts and minds of white South Africa and came to dominate racial discourse in Kimberley.
English colonists introduced American-style minstrel shows to South African audiences in the 1850s. After the debut of the world-famous Christy Minstrels in Cape Town in August of 1862, minstrelsy achieved a previously unheard of popularity in South Africa. Over the next three decades, blackface minstrel shows became the dominant form of popular white musical and theatrical entertainment in South Africa, second only to the circus. Amateur minstrel troupes performed in all the major urban locales, and audiences were offered a wide choice in entertainment with two or more different troupes performing in each major city each night. Minstrelsy catered to both "high" and more "popular" audiences, as British regiments employed private minstrels for their entertainment, and working-class audiences were able to enjoy shows in the numerous canteens and eating houses that proliferated in urban areas (Erlmann, 1991). Minstrelsy soon became an extremely popular form of entertainment in Kimberley. After the opening performance of the Natal Christy Minstrels, the Diamond News (1872, July 27) carried the following report:
The Natal Christy Minstrels made their debut at the Mutual Hall.... The Hall was crowded from floor to ceiling, and from ceiling to floor again. The rafters and beams of the roof were crowded with people, as well as the chairs and floors. This was a "new Rush" and no mistake. Long before the hour of performance the doors were thronged and when the doors were opened the people came in with a rush, and the ticket-takers had more work than they had counted upon. Mr. Payne, the manager, did his utmost to ensure every one his own proper place, but no manager could meet such a sudden and unexpected rush. There were demands for admission even when the place was over full. There were crowds of people round the doors from the time of opening until the close of the performances, with the whole of which the audience was well pleased, and testified their approbation by repeated encores and applause.
It was also reported in the Diamond Field of August 19, 1874, that the H-D-B-L Minstrels performed old favorites like "A Night in a Canteen" and "Old Virginy" to "immense applause" on three consecutive nights in August of 1874.
Africans on the fields quickly felt the popularity of minstrelsy as they were frequently abused as "Christy Minstrels," "Jim Crow," or simply "Jim" (Matthews, 1887, p. 193). One archetype in particular, that of the "Nigger Dandy," was favored above all others. The epithet "dandy darky swell" quickly became the favored term of abuse as any African who displayed signs of wealth was automatically assumed to be engaged in the illicit diamond trade and tagged with the label of "Nigger Swell." It was commonly held that it was the "swells of natives who [were] at the bottom of the diamond robberies" (Diamond News, 1875, June 3). As one writer to the Diamond Field (1877, January 23) editorialized:
Diamond stealing by the Natives employed to work the claims is daily on the increase. The continuance of this crime is sapping the energies of the wealthiest digger. His claim might be a rich one, but somehow he got no finds of any importance. If there were no receivers there would be no thieves. The dishonest nigger has no difficulty in finding a man to whom he can sell all he can steal. These receivers are mostly black swell niggers as they are called.
The figure of the "darky" or "nigger" swell might be considered humorous (in a perverse sort of way) when judged by contemporary standards. At the time that these images circulated in Kimberley newspapers and public forums, however, the figure of the Swell inspired more ire than amusement. The defining marks of the swell were his cocked hat, cigar, and above all, his extravagant suit. The connections drawn between the swell, the suit, and the industrial unrest were such that one digger complained of having to pay "first for Kaffir labour and now for their clothes" (Diamond Field, 1874, August 19).
In a chapter entitled "Fashioning the Colonial Subject," Jean and John Comaroff (1997) argue that struggles over how African bodies were to be clothed and represented "were not just metonymic of colonialism, they were a crucial site in the battle of wills and deeds ... that shaped the encounter between Europeans and Africans" (p. 222). In the Evangelical rendering of the world, Western clothing was a sign of civility and signaled the triumph of European values, for consumption was a major index of social standing for the rising middle classes. Western dress, however, did not simply operate as an oppressive instrument of cultural imperialism. Western dress also "opened up a host of imaginative possibilities for Africans ... and made available an expansive, expressive, experimental language with which to conjure new social identities and senses of self, a language with which to speak back to the whites" (Comaroff & Comaroff, 1997, p. 235). From the late nineteenth century onward, labor migration and urbanization profoundly impacted African modes of self-fashioning. This was partly a result of the tremendous variety in clothes, fabrics, and fashions available to migrants in urban centers and partly a result of the excess income work in urban areas provided. "Those who traveled to towns were immediately met by an array of `Kaffir Stores' which pressed upon them a range of `native goods' designed for neophyte black proletarians" (Comaroff & Comaroff, 1997, p. 250). Clothes were the backbone of the trader economy as migrants spent a considerable able proportion of their disposable income on the trousers, shirts, hats, boots, braces, and belts available for purchase in Kimberley shops. Clothes conveyed important messages about status and levels of civilization: "they were the means by which one might, through refined consumption, contrive respectability and personal distinction in urban colonial society" (Comaroff & Comaroff, 1997, p. 251).
The centrality of dress to the drawing of colonial boundaries as well as its effectiveness in blurring them was such that one writer after another sent letters to the local papers complaining of the constant presence on the streets of Kimberley of "colored men, dressed in fine clothes, with belts for carrying diamonds and money round their waists. Many of [whom] are great dandies in their way" (Diamond News, 1875, June 1). Another digger complained of the "natives with hats stuck way upon their wooly heads and cigars in their mouths" that could be found "roaming" about the mining camps (Diamond News, 1875, June 3). Yet another objected to "the number of Natives on the fields dressed like dandy Broadway swells" (Diamond News, 1873, February 25). Prejudice against the Swells and the equation of well-dressed Africans with crime was such that a meeting of the Joint Committee to Consider the Suppression of Illicit Diamond Buying passed a resolution to empower detectives throughout Kimberley and its environs to search any "well dressed groups of Kaffirs or Natives" (Daily Independent, 1880, April 3). The mere fact of an African man being "well dressed" was, therefore, enough to inspire suspicion and merit searching, arrest, and/or his expulsion from the colony.
The Dandy Swell clearly expressed racial and economic anxiety, envy, and hatred as working-class white men began to perceive and project their class subjugation in racial and sexual terms. The three facets of race, class, and sex cannot, however ever, be separated. Rather, they interacted with and mutually reinforced one another. The figure of the Dandy had a history that predated the emergence of minstrelsy as a form of popular entertainment. In England and France, as early as the eighteenth century, the trope of the Dandy existed as what Garber (1997) calls a "cultural class marker" (p. 180). The Dandy first emerged as a figure of opprobrium in the eighteenth century, a vehicle for the middle classes to express their disgust with as well as to differentiate themselves from the decadent aristocracy. As Catherine Hall (1992) explains, "[middle-class] critiques of the degeneracy and effeminacy of the aristocracy focused on its softness, sensuousness, indolence, luxuriousness, foppishness, and lack of a proper sense of purpose and direction" (p. 257). Thus, middle-class class disgust and displeasure with aristocratic caprice and pretension were expressed through the stereotyped actions of the Dandy.
In the minstrel tradition, the Dandy told a story of gendered, class, and racial subjectivity. The Dandy, a consummate symbol of the urban black, was an "ideological fiction through which certain of the decade's conflicts were lived" (Lott, 1993, p. 112). The primary context that underwrote this representation was the simple and undeniable presence of black male bodies in urban public space. The Dandy spoke to a mostly implicit but oftentimes-explicit fear of and fascination with black men's physical and sexual power. The sexual overtones implicit in the stereotype of the Dandy were obvious. As the work of Winthrop Jordan (1968) so aptly demonstrates, from the seventeenth century onwards, the rapacious sexual proclivities of Africans had been the standard fare of travelers' tales, and myths of black hyper-sexuality had thus worked themselves into the popular consciousness of whites the world over. It was a commonly held belief that Africans' sexual organs were larger, that they had voracious sexual appetites, and that they copulated frequently and with impunity. Thus, the equation of black men with a potent and dangerous sexuality was quite familiar by the mid-1840s when the American Dandy first made his appearance and was even better established in the mid-1870s when the South African Dandy first made his.
In the American minstrel tradition, according to Lott (1993), the "effete but potent dandy figure" incarnated threats about the "raw and undomesticated" power of the black body, or, in cruder terms, "white men's obsession with a rampageous black penis" (p. 25). In the American context, the song sheet illustrations that accompanied the shows referenced this phallic obsession again and again by showing "coattails hanging prominently between characters' legs, and personae ... pictured with sticks or poles strategically placed near the groin or with other appendages occasionally hanging near or between the legs" (Lott, 1993, p. 120). Veiled references to black male sexual potency were no less apparent in the South African tradition, marked by its frequent references to the Dandies' dangling cigars and pocket watches and lofty pointed hats.
While the potency of the Dandy may have been momentarily attractive, this attraction quickly transformed into condemnation and violence. If the black body represented the threat, it was upon this same body that horrendous instances of violence were enacted. Africans were repeatedly beaten, often to death (Diamond Field, 1872, August 8, September 12; Diamond News, 1872, July 27). One digger, who suspected his worker of stealing, extracted each of his teeth one by one until he forced a "confession" (Cape Argus, 1872, July 27). Being beaten with the "Cat-o-nine-tails" was a standard punishment as was hanging, as white diggers regularly called on the services of "Judge Lynch" (Diamond News, 1872, July 17).
To manage the physical and psychic threat posed by the "Swells," diggers' responses alternated between violence and ridicule. The intense conflicts that surrounded diggers' representations of Africans are clearly evidenced by one digger who began his diatribe in the Diamond News (1875, June 1) by making light of the Swells who "limped about in high heeled boots very uncomfortably having more the appearance of Apes in fashionable attire than men accustomed to fine linen and broadcloth." His mood quickly hardened, however, as he went on to rail against black men as a threat to white womanhood. "Niggers roll along the side-walks of the town, with cigars in their mouths, give inside place to no one and drive ladies off the walks into the street." His concluding paragraph only barely conceals his envy as he asks, "Where do these men get money to buy such fine clothes and to spend on wine and cigars?" These kinds of responses lend even more credence to Fanon's (1967) supposition that:
On the genital level, when a white man hates black men, is he not yielding to a feeling of impotence or of sexual inferiority? Since his ideal is an infinite virility, is there not a phenomenon of diminution in relation to the Negro, who is viewed as a penis symbol? ... Is the Negro's superiority real? Everyone knows that it is not. But that is not what matters. (p. 159)
MASCULINITY AND MONEY
In Kimberley what mattered, of course, was not so much the imagined sexual potency of the black as the very real fear of the increase in black social and economic agency in the face of the decrease of the same among whites. As conditions for white diggers worsened and the industry in general became more dependent on African labor, Africans were able to take advantage of their favorable position in the labor market and bargain their wage rates upward. Most of the Africans on the fields were laborers from neighboring African societies who migrated for short terms to earn money to purchase guns, blankets, cattle, and consumer items. In the early decades of the 1870s up until the time that industrial capitalists achieved hegemony and were able (with the help of the British government) to transform independent black laborers into a landless proletariat, black laborers had a fair amount of autonomy. Most refused to engage themselves to any one employer for an extended period. They also refused to work in dangerous claims near the reef or in third-class claims where the finds were poor. This meant that the shortage of black labor was most severe for the share workers. Africans' position in the labor market was so strong that an attempt by claimholders to reduce wages in 1872 actually resulted in African laborers' doubling their wage rate (Turrell, 1982). The Diamond News of July 17 of that year reported:
The next week after the proposal to reduce their wages had been communicated to the natives, they left by the hundreds, and they continued to leave, although now that the mischief is done, many persons, in their dire need of Kaffirs for their work, are offering extra inducements, in addition to the full ten shillings a week wages, in order to get them to stay, and in vain. The result of this move will most probably be, that before winter is over, wages will rule higher than they were before.
One digger, writing in the Diamond News of October 5, 1876, made a similar observation after a massive exodus of Africans from the diamond fields that same year:
Zulus, Bechuanas, Batlapins, &c, have made their exit in such large numbers that with all our hatred of and contempt for them as men and laborers we are driven to make the admission that we would rather have their company than their room.
[W]e cannot get rid of the Kaffir and we must therefore, for our own sakes, turn him to the best advantage. In this land we can neither toil nor reap without his assistance. He is in a variety of ways indispensable to us, and must be tolerated, despite our repugnance to his ignorance, manners, and habits." (Diamond News, 1876, September 7)
Anthony Trollope (1877) put it most plainly when he declared, "though we abuse the Kafir, we want his service" (p. 134). This was indeed the troth. By withdrawing their labor at key moments, African workers were able to quintuple their wages between 1871 and 1875. However, securing a supply of labor was only half the battle. Claim owners also wanted to reduce the issue of "desertion" whereby Africans left one employer for another in search of better wages or better working conditions. One claim owner complained:
I've traveled two or three hundred miles to get boys, paid their expenses all the way down here, and, upon arriving at the diggings, registered them according to law. Well, after all this expense, loss of time, hardship, and trouble, the nigger is no sooner registered than he meets with some old friends who, of course, advise him to leave the man who has just paid so dearly for him, and take another master, under whom he may be in company with his old companions and chums. The nigger takes their advice, and deserts his master's service. (Diamond Field, 1878, April 26)
In the wake of the proliferation of joint-stock companies in the early 1880s, the owners of the companies began to compete intensely for laborers, and black wages rose to the highest levels they were ever to reach (Worger, 1987). As one claimholder exclaimed in the Diamond News (1873, February 25), "native labor here is the most expensive in the word, and not only the most expensive but the most unmanageable!"
As the industry became increasingly centralized and mining technology more sophisticated, the white working class was not only proletarianized but also split into two tiers. The upper tier consisted of a select group of skilled white miners and artisans The lower consisted of overseers in charge of supervising black workers. When small holding dominated, white men rarely sold their labor as nearly all the wage labor in the mines was done by blacks. The typical arrangement was one whereby each claimholder, perhaps assisted by one or two partners, or working someone else's claims on shares, had supervised his own work force of ten to twenty black laborers who used very rudimentary technology. The large consolidated claims employed up to one hundred or more black workers and since employers could not personally supervise them all, they hired the former independent claimholders to do it, with a ratio of one white supervisor to every ten black employees. Overseeing was not, however, a chosen occupation. Rather, diggers' cum overseers did not have many marketable skills. Most of these workers had such limited skills that when the demand for skilled labor grew with increased mechanization, these positions were filled not by local laborers but by imported labor from England. Most of the skilled mine workforce consisted of Cornish miners who came to Kimberley to escape the effects of depression in the industry. Thus, the white working-class community was not only segmented but also very fragmented, the truly skilled being a largely foreign-born population (Worger, 1987).
The diggers engaged in limited, but oftentimes violent, acts of rebellion against the ruling classes and the state. Between 1870 and 1877, the diggers did not exert much influence at the state level. They did not have the wealth or influence of the merchants, and there was little they could do to force the state to enact any type of class legislation. As a result, they became increasingly vocal in their criticism of the state after 1875. The diggers formed themselves into committees composed of popularly elected European diggers. The committees became the apparatus through which diggers were able to articulate their demands and conceive of themselves as a united effort with interests opposed to those of the Southey government and the colonial state. The committees were staunch defenders of what came to be known as "digger's democracy." Diggers' democracy was exclusive to Europeans and based on the enterprise of the small-scale producer. As Newbury (1989) explains:
An undercurrent of resistance to government "interference" remained part of the heritage of the digger, frequently romanticized as a defense of miners' special rights and just as frequently exercised at the expense of the rights of others. (p. 10)
THE WAGES OF WHITENESS
The conditions for the white working class in Kimberley were extremely hard. Many diggers earned barely enough to survive and had to rely on their wives and children taking on jobs in order to make ends meet. In addition to suffering economic hardship, the unskilled white workers also suffered social dislocation. There existed very clear demarcations between themselves, skilled members of the white working class, and the emerging bourgeoisie of merchants, bankers, and traders. However, the demarcations between themselves and the masses of black laborers, traders, and miners remained unclear and continually threatened to become less rather than more pronounced. Lott's (1993) observations about the artisan classes in antebellum America hold equally well for the overseers:
Sandwiched between bourgeois above and black below, respectable artisans feared they were becoming "blacker" with every increment of industrial advance, and countered with the language and violence of white supremacy. But the very vehemence of their response indicated the increasing functional and discursive interchangeability of blacks and working class whites. (p. 71)
The "blackening" of the overseers continued apace in the 1880s with repeated attempts by mining capitalists to subject black and white workers alike to the indignity of daily body searches. When the state and mining capital made attempts to enforce similar types of legislation on white and black laborers, it demonstrated to the diggers cum overseers the precariousness of their position. Overseers were forced to face the fact that mining companies regarded them "solely as a part of labor and intended to treat them in much the same ways as were black laborers" (Worger, 1987, p. 158). As their petition to the president and members of the legislative council stated:
This degradation consists both in suffering the act of searching and classing of intelligent and honest white men with raw and thievish natives, which must inevitably lower the moral tone and social stares of hundreds of citizens. (Diamond News, 1880, July 15)
For, as an irate writer to the Daily Independent (1884, April 11) explained, "to undergo the same degradation as the native labor in my opinion is branding all white labor as thieves."
Mining capital even used the same images and language to talk about white labor as had formerly been used solely against blacks. Mr. S. Marks, the director of three mining companies and the managing director of two, testified before the Select Committee on Illicit Diamond Buying that white overseers drank excessively and were not necessarily more trustworthy than Africans. In answer to the question, "Do people consider that what they pay the native and what they steal, is not more than they pay a white man?" he replied:
If we were sure when Europeans were engaged that they were straightforward and honest, and we felt we could trust them, then we could get into figures. I have tried white labour. I engaged fifty white men as laborers, but it would not answer, they worked one day and got drank the next. You can always depend on the Kaffirs. (Cape of Good Hope, 1882, p. 27)
A letter to the Daily Independent (1881, November 12) in support of compounding white laborers in small cottages (rather than in barracks as blacks were), brought the honesty of the overseers into question and argued that "it did not follow by any means because a man goes to church and spends money entertaining his friends that he should not be making his fortunes by means of Illicit Diamond Buying." A follow-up letter in support of the searching of whites reasoned that "it is not, for a moment to be imagined, that natives are responsible for all the stealing that goes on in the mine or that all the white inspectors and overseers are honest" (Daily Independent, 1882, April 12).
The public struggle over stripping was conducted in terms of the degradation of white men as fathers and patriarchs and the threats searching and its attendant humiliation posed to the integrity of the white family. The Daily Independent noted, "[N]o measure has caused so much agitation amongst family circles in this Province as the proposal to search the Overseers in the Mines." The paper regularly printed letters from "indignant wives of claimholders" because they felt these letters "no doubt expressed the feelings of all those who have husbands and sons working in the mines" (Daily Independent, 1880, July 16). Thus class conflicts inevitably referenced masculinity as much as they referenced race. As "An Old Claimholder" complained the Daily Independent of October 15 1883, searching a white man would not only impugn his honor but also "irrevocably put him out of the category of trusted men." A number of overseers' wives wrote impassioned letters wherein they constructed being "submitted to the same disgusting degradation as the untutored Negro" with a threat to patriarchy and the sanctity of the white family (Diamond Fields Advertiser, 1883, October 17). "A Sympathizing Wife of a Once Claimholder" asked what effect it would have on her children to see their father "who has always been held up to them as an example of honesty ... placed on a level with the natives, who, as a rule, [did] not consider stealing to be a sin" (Daily Independent, 1880, July 18). And "An Overseer's Wife" objected that being forced to strip and submit to searches would invariably serve to "lower" the men not only in the eyes of the natives over whom they were placed but in the eyes of their families and communities as well (Daily Independent, 1884, April 15).
The strained class relations that were the result of the explosion of capitalist energy in the mining industry helped to produce new languages and practices that worked to mute and redirect class antagonisms. A discourse on citizenship, philanthropy, the metropolis, and race developed alongside that of the Dandy, which referenced the insecurity that attended class stratification as it articulated working-class fears about the status of their whiteness. Once again the parallels between the Northern "Zip Coon Dandy" and the South African "Dandy Swell" are striking. Lott (1993) attributes the power of the Dandy stereotype to an urge on the part of insecure northern whites to diffuse the power of the "integrationist" impulse in race relations. The black Dandy, with his modern clothes, urbane attitude, and "European" ways, was the embodiment of all that the anti-egalitarians feared (Roediger, 1991). However, the Dandy figure also allegorically represented the class threats of those (abolitionists in the American case; "Exeter Hall" reformists in the South African) advocating this kind of radical social change. In other words, the Dandy was not only meant to caricature and ridicule blacks but was also a way of caricaturing and ridiculing upper-class whites who advocated on their behalf. Thus, "white male workers targeted both employers and black workers, reformers (often wealthy or evangelical whites) and their `fashionable' black associates--the historical referents of minstrelsy's oft remarked capacity to ridicule upward in class as well as downward in racial direction" (Lott, 1993, p. 112).
This is nowhere better demonstrated than in what was meant to be a humorous sketch that appeared in The Diamond News (1872, January 24) entitled "A Museum Suggested for Curious" that suggested a museum be established to house the curiosities of the diggings and listed nine potential items for inclusion. Among the curiosities were "a real live Boer that believes in the motion of the earth round the sun," a "sober policeman," "an honest nigger," and "a red hot Exeter Hall philanthropist who, after 27 years experience in the colony, actually believes in the equality of white and black and that natives should have claims." When, despite the diggers' best efforts, the British Colonial Office upheld the principle that no British subject could be legally discriminated against on the basis of color, they further exacerbated diggers' anxieties around what they saw as dangerously inclusive notions of citizenship as they frustrated diggers' efforts to enact "class" legislation.
Exclusive notions of citizenship and the inequalities before the law of which they were productive were critical to the construction of colonial whiteness. Thus, much of the ire directed at champions of equality (or Exeter Hall as it was loosely referred to) was motivated by anxieties around the erosion of the boundaries surrounding colonial whiteness. As one irate letter to the Diamond Field (1872, May 2) put it, "the liberty and equality principle is repudiated as chartist at home, but is recognized as the `man and the brudder' when it stands in the peppercorn wig and the offensive effluvium which distinguishes the Negro and Kaffir races."
Lurking not very far beneath the surface of the diatribes former claimholders directed at the Dandy Swells were critiques about the diminishing respect shown toward labor in general. As one writer to the Diamond News (1875, June 1) was led to comment:
The bare fact that there are a large number of natives dressed in superfine clothes, swaggering about the towns and round about the various mines all day long without ever doing any work is sufficient to convince anyone that there is something rotten in the state of Griqualand West.
In the same issue of the Diamond News, another like-minded reader complained that
when an able bodied man cannot give a satisfactory account of how he earns his living he needs looking up. Ask any of these natives how they earn their livings and they could not tell. The fact is that they do no manual labor and yet are always flush of money.
The repeated comparison invoked between the material attainments of the "Dandies" and what white men in similar circumstances could afford speaks not only to racial hatred and jealousy but also to a keen awareness of class exploitation and inequality more generally. One writer, for example, complained of the "Sunday going niggers who are much better dressed than the white man who works in the Corn fields of England." The South African Native, he continued, "leaves the fields after two months with much more personal property than an English agricultural laborer could accumulate in two years" (Diamond News, 1873, February 25). Another urged his fellow readers to "look at the black gentlemen [riding] about in carts which white men in pretty good circumstances [could not] afford and smoking cigars" (Diamond News, 1874, November 1). Finally, a writer to the Diamond Field of August 19, 1874 used the occasion of a public meeting to complain of the "swell niggers drinking champagne while white men working claims near them are scarcely able to buy bread."
When Fanon described the black man as a phobogenic object, he was referring both to the anxiety the presence of blacks evoked in whites as well as to the critical role the black occupied in the white imagination as a vehicle onto which anxieties and desires could be projected. The black, as an object of fantasy, worked to stabilize white identities and police the boundaries of consciousness. The black, as an object of white consciousness, could never achieve stability. Paradoxically, it was precisely because of this dependence that stability eluded the white conscious and unconscious equally well. Thus, white subjectivities and the image of the black were marked by their state of perpetual flux, alternating between pleasure and danger, love and hate, envy and desire. These changes were equally a function of proximity as they were of distance. Physical distance did not preclude psychic obsession and/or efforts at psychic distancing, while physical proximity could bring forth efforts at simultaneous psychic distancing and incorporation.
The author would like to thank the Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, where she was a fellow during the completion of this essay.
(1.) "Kaffir" is an Arabic term meaning "infidel" that became a term of racial abuse, similar to "nigger" in the American vernacular.
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The Cape Argus
The Diamond Fields Advertiser (Diamond Field)
The Diamond News
The Daily Independent
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Zine Magubane, Department of Sociology (MC 454), University of Illinois, 326 Lincoln Hall, 702 S. Wright Street, Urbana, Illinois 61801. Electronic mail may he sent to email@example.com.
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|Publication:||The Journal of Men's Studies|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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