A host of demographic, economic, and political factors coalesced to produce this particularly high-tension environment, which problematized attempts to construct a secure settler state, consequently sharpening settler’s defensive attitudes towards the African community. The demographic status of the minority white settler community, made a significant contribution to their acute sense of vulnerability. In an article in 1927 the writer and political activist Ethel Tawse Jollie captured these anxieties. The first female member of the Rhodesian Legislative Council, Jollie, drawing comparison with the longer established South Africa, states that the population of Southern Rhodesia, after 30 years of European colonisation stood at 40,000 whites and 860,000 natives. By contrast, the population of South Africa, after two hundred years of colonisation, stood at 1,250,000 and 5,500,000 respectively. Mlambo has highlighted how outward migration compounded the issue, contributing to the sense that whilst South Africa prospered, Southern Rhodesia was persistently vexed by the need to both attract and retain prospective immigrants. This reveals how fears concerned not only the present but were projected forward, focusing on the future sustainability of the colony.
Cultural divisions within the white community, comprising British, Afrikaners, and other Europeans, exacerbated these tensions. In Jollie’s words, these settlers had not benefited from the ‘cold invigorating British climate.’ Jollie’s emphasis on ‘Britain’ throws light on an essential and distinguishing characteristic of the specific Southern Rhodesian patriotism: the ambition to establish the colony as an enclave of middle class Britain, deep within Southern Africa. This would develop a strong local identity which would attach the settlers more closely to their community and to the metropole. This elevated a need to preserve racial barriers, and thereby bolster distinctions visible by colour through strong social etiquette, which would reinforce the perceived difference between civilized and barbaric. As Kennedy contends, for the white community, as an ‘an ethnic minority, situated in an unfamiliar environment, paramountcy was dependent upon constant and elaborate mechanisms of control over a far more numerous latently hostile indigenous population.’ The need to create a greater sense of social unity between ethnic factions in Southern Rhodesia gave rise to an acute need to reinforce the racial boundaries between black and white.
The specific economic conditions of Southern Rhodesian underpinned the anxiety provoked by its demographic imbalances. ‘Rhodesia, in contrast to Kenya, was dominated by lower middle-class settlers, [who] were vulnerable to economic depressions and which feared competition from Afrikaners, Asians and Africans.’ The failure to find gold or diamond resources, equivalent to that of South Africa, undermined visons of guaranteed social advancement, creating an environment of potential disillusionment. This cynicism is captured by the early female pioneer Mary Blackwood, in her letters about Mashonaland, 1897-1901. Whilst her husband ‘David is happy and pleased to have a house of his own’, Mary appears unimpressed, describing the house as a ‘bald looking place… [with an] appalling looking kitchen.’ Similarly, in The Grass is Singing, despite the gap of four decades, the British novelist Doris Lessing, who had lived Southern Rhodesia since the age of six, captures similar themes, describing the Turners’ home as a ‘tiny stuffy room, [with a] bare brick floor’. The sight causes Mary to ‘feel…weak with foreboding.’ Both women’s detailed accounts of their physical surroundings divulges their aspiration to attain a middle-class status, often evidenced through material possessions. Images of the superior civilized European were also jeopardized by the existence of a ‘poor white’ community, situated particularly in the mining areas, and exacerbated by burgeoning illicit trades, such as liquor production. The Report of the Commission Appointed to Enquire into Assaults on Women focused on South Africa, but noted that similar claims of sexual assaults were not ‘infrequent’ in the wider colonial area. By implication then, the results of the Report applied to Southern Rhodesia. The Report critiques the ‘indigent whites …[who] cause…the native [to lose] respect for the white race.’ . Kennedy has argued that, ‘the poor white problem; [the] central ‘bogie’ of colonial society… ‘rivalled the ‘black peril’ in its ability to provoke anxiety.’ But what Kennedy overlooks here is that poverty, rather than being a distinct issue, was a constituent part of the environment which gave rise to moral panics. In Southern Rhodesia, economic disappointment elevated anxiety about the potential threat ‘poverty’ posed to the clear-cut boundaries between black and white races.
Southern Rhodesia’s two main industries, farming, and mining, relied heavily on African labour, perpetuating a sense of white vulnerability by throwing into flux the strict hierarchy of the ‘servant master’ relationship. In Jollie’s words ‘climatically and politically, it is a white man’s country: socially it is a white aristocracy with a black proletariat.’ For Hyatt the close intermingling of the two races meant that the … ‘native…[seeing the] weaknesses and the vices [of his ruler] was no longer impressed, [but gained] contemptuous envy.’ Whilst the absence of African voices in historical records means that the tangibility of this claim remains ambiguous, it provides insight into the depth of white anxieties. Both authors, whilst writing a decade apart, identify the relationship of two communities as a central issue for the future of white colonization. Jollie provides information particularly illuminating for the context of Rhodesia, emphasizing how the colony was also reliant on migrant labour. Moreover, low wages meant that ‘Rhodesian labor goes to Johannesburg, while she recruits from Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia.’ The constant flow of African migrants between different economic settings contributed to an overall atmosphere of instability, exacerbating the sense that the white community was unable to control the native population. The vulnerability this forced on the settlers was reinforced by strikes such as the Shamva mine strikes of 1927. In Southern Rhodesia, the continued reliance of the white population on African labour helped to perpetuate a general sense of white vulnerability, contributing to particularly embittered race relations, and the heightened need to reassert distinctions between the black and white community.
Disillusionments about political control further strengthened feelings of white insecurity. Born in the early period of colonization, political unease stretched back to the 1893 Matabele war and the 1896 chimurenga, which had seen the death of around ten percent of the total European population. Terence Ranger described how ‘sudden unexpected risings…burnt themselves deep into the white Rhodesian consciousness.’ Moreover, as Bonello has argued, the ‘relationship of settlers to their homeland was complex, characterized not only by strong patriotism but an opposing feeling of neglect that created another layer of insecurity in…white identity.’ Whereas Kenya had been governed by the British Foreign Office directly since 1895, and South Africa gained self-government in 1910, Southern Rhodesia remained under the administration of the British South African Company (BSAC) until 1923. The Company Charter gave the BSAC broad responsibilities, including (12) ‘regulation of…intoxicating liquors’, and (14) the ‘administration of justice’, but reserved ‘ultimate rights to the…Secretary of State.’ Settlers in Southern Rhodesia thus suffered from twofold tension with both the British Government and the BSAC. Jollie’s 1917 article, specifically written with the aim of attaining a ‘higher form of Government’, captures these tensions. Jollie describes how the ambiguous nature of Southern Rhodesia makes it ‘difficult to see how the voice of Rhodesia will be heard’. It was within this context that, as Jeater has argued, the ‘black peril’ became a significant focus in the growing political tensions, as the lives of African men were used as pawns in a power struggle between settler, BSACo, and Crown’. Tensions were brought to a head in 1903, when the High Commissioner Lord Selbourne, commuted the sentence of a native convicted for the rape of a white European woman, resulting in widespread uproar. The general atmosphere of insecurity, of which such political tensions were a part, were the immediate context to many rape allegations. The unique political blend of colonial settlement and Company rule gave rise to a particular Southern Rhodesian political disempowerment, cultivating an exaggerated need to enforce boundaries between the settler and native population.
Set against this incessantly hostile environment, a ‘collective sense of Rhodesian-ness evoloved that was characterised by insecurity.’ Fears about the future security of the white settler state were compounded by the interaction of black and white communities. As early as 1906, Hyatt postulated that ‘[w]hite and black cannot live side but side as equals.’ But, as the colony evolved, its capitalist markets proliferating and its urban centres expanding, the increasing interaction of the two communities threw into flux assumed racial stereotypes. This gave rise, for example, to a chorus of criticisms against missionaries, whose policy of civilization was seen as accelerating the process of detribalization, and by implication potential assimilation. Hyatt feared that it had caused the native to become ‘aggressive, not as a savage, but as a pseudo civilized man.’ Similarly, Jollie was repulsed by the missionary’s view ‘that [the native] is just as capable of development under Christian influence as the white man.’ According to Jollie the ramifications of detribalization were particularly bad in urban areas, where the natives had lost ‘tribal sense or touch with the land.’ Experienced commentators such as Posselt, the District Commissioner of Marandellas, 1920-1932, signaled how having removed ‘all restraint and discipline…enforced by tribal institutions’, polices had failed to develop that ‘sense of individual self-respect.’ Posselt’s fear was that this may unleash the natural perversity of African sexuality and, more worryingly, leave the Africans vulnerable to ‘the wors[t] habits of the white man.’ As early as 1909, attempts had thus been made to revise ‘Native Policy’. But legislation failed to remedy anxieties. In 1927 Jollie argued that whilst ‘segregation is now the policy in favor in the Union, it may be premature to consider it in Southern Rhodesia at present’. The term ‘segregation’ may have increasingly entered into discourse surrounding the ‘native policy’, but there was no firm infrastructure to control the danger of potential submergence. As a result, a sense of impending crisis remained, perpetuating white settlers’ anxieties about the security of white purity and hegemony. Whilst perceived ideals of ‘white and black’ identities remained largely static, Southern Rhodesian society was subject to a constant evolution, meaning that the contours of white identity were constantly renegotiated. The ‘black peril’ was a symptom of the contradiction between, and the tensions arising from, these two states.
Why these contradictions were manifested in ‘black peril’ panics is, however, subject to contention. Following the model Charles van Onselen applied to South Africa , historians such as Schmidt and Kennedy argue that ‘black peril’ scares were ‘intentionally fomented’ as a mechanism for ‘forging racial unity in the white community during periods of social and economic duress.’ This interpretation fails to recognise that the tensions contributing to the ‘black peril’ were endemic rather than strictly periodic. This reflects the view advanced by McCulloch, who argues that the ‘panics were both an expression of the problems of constructing a white identity, and the means by which it was achieved.’ McCulloch’s explanation can be further enhanced by a more detailed analysis of how ‘European women…experienced the colonial venture very differently…from men.’ This approach is taken by Stoler, whose study on groups within settler communities problematizes the view that ‘colonial elites [were] homogeneous communities of common interest.’ The argument advanced here draws on the nuances identified by Stoler, applying them to Southern Rhodesian society. This understands the concept of ‘black peril’ as subject to gender variation. Manifesting a variety of different anxieties and representing multiple threats, ‘black peril’ was therefore dependent on the particular position of perceivers within an evolving society.
The significance of gender variation was manifested in the legislation produced in response to the initial moral panics. This was fashioned by a masculine psychology, whose anxieties focused on the maintenance of racial boundaries; the assertion of masculine authority; and the protection of female virtue. Prostitution, as an embodiment of these three threats, was frequently identified as being a leading cause of ‘black peril’. As the Report on Assaults on Women observed, prostitution ‘conduce[d] the loss of respect…[as the native realizes that] even finely dressed white women make a traffic of their persons.’ Whilst in Kenya, ‘black peril’ was associated with the ‘innocent and helpless’, or those on the periphery of society, in Southern Rhodesia the allegations against mature women meant that the threat was interpreted as more central, endangering white hegemony itself. This jeopardized not only racial barriers, but moreover threatened male identities. Posselt highlights the contribution of female prostitutes to the ‘perverse’ and corrupting cultures of the urban environment. Yet the primary fear about prostitution was not, as may be expected, miscegenation, but rather masculine identities. Prostitutes, as economically autonomous women threatened the notion of the male breadwinner, and with it the foundations of male patriarchal authority. But in the unique context of Southern Rhodesia’s shortage of women, this gave rise to a contradiction in male psychology. Whilst men wanted access to commercial sex, they also wanted to appear respectable. Whilst the 1913 South African Commission saw white prostitution as a contributive factor to the ‘black peril’, The Brundell Report in 1915 identified it as a ‘peril’ in its own right. The ‘white peril’ was ‘white females who prostitute themselves with natives for the purpose of monetary gain…[and]…[t]he indiscreet and careless attitude adopted by white females in their personal relations with their native male servants’. This reveals the fluidity of terms referring to the threat of sexual relations between black men and white women. Whilst in many other southern African countries, such as Zambia and in some parts of South Africa, ‘white peril’ was taken to refer to white men who consorted with black women, here white females were condemned as the primary transgressors. The misogynistic mindset of society meant that fears about sexual relations between black men and white women proliferated, whilst the transgressions of white men with black females were swept under the carpet. Interpretations of ‘black peril’, shaped by assumed hierarchies of gender and race, were increasingly compounded by divisions within Rhodesian society itself.
Male settlers also feared that female virtue could be jeopardized by inappropriate relationships between women and their male domestic servants. Women, often identified as ‘new’ settlers, were liable to being accused of handling domestic servants ineffectively. The distinction between ‘new’ and ‘old’ settlers reveals a second dynamic to Southern Rhodesia’s heterogeneous society. In her article The White Woman’s Mistake, Sybil Cormack Smith specifically identifies herself as a ‘South African Woman’, thereby emphasizing her position as an experienced colonial settler. Condemning the naivety of the women who ‘allow their servants to enter into their rooms at all hours to prepare their own and their children baths’ , Smith reveals a fixation with social codes and manners characteristic of a society in which race was understood as a fragile concept which beyond its biological foundations had to be both ‘learnt’ and ‘acquired’. As argued by Allison Shutt ‘for whites racial etiquette was a fundamental and fragile way to express power and command respect.’ Manners were necessary for the social reinforcement of the perceived boundary between black and white; in showing disregard for racial etiquette, naive housewives where thus seen to jeopardize the security of white hegemony. Doris Lessing traces similar themes in The Grass is Singing, where Mary Turner falls under criticism for her failure to deal adequately with natives in her role as Dick Turner’s housewife. Dick directly criticises Mary’s approach to the natives, stating that she ‘should learn sense…you have to know how to manage them.’ But this reveals more than a straightforward, misogynistic assumption that women had women had inferior knowledge. Smith’s criticisms, by presenting women as ignorant rather than sinners, are symptomatic of the preoccupation with preserving female virtue. Within Southern Rhodesia, domestic service remained a male preserve throughout the period. This meant that whereas in South Africa relationships across the colour boundary occurred between domestic servants , in Southern Rhodesia, affairs more frequently developed between employer and employee. Such relationships contested class and racial status simultaneously. It was not by chance that the majority of ‘black peril’ cases evolved in domestic settings; domestic service as the only common form of legitimate interaction between European women and African males, provided a key example of the fragility of boundaries between the two races. Domestic service, frequently cited as a cause of ‘black peril’, encapsulated the divisions within Southern Rhodesian society, not only in terms of gender, but also in terms of expected social etiquette, the breach of which was often associated with inexperienced women.
The dominance of contemporary male discourses has, however, obscured the extent to which the tensions which arose between women and their domestic servants were distinct from those identified by men. Feminist historians are yet to produce substantial work on the ‘black peril’. McCulloch has acknowledged this gap, but his study falls short of providing a detailed analysis of how women’s different colonial experience meant they subscribed to a different conception of ‘black peril’. For women, as subordinate to their husband, the main source of their power lay over menservants. As a result, women often felt an overpowering need to take a tougher line towards their servants. This tension is captured by Doris Lessing explicitly when Mary responds to Dick’s criticisms of her handling of the natives that ‘It’s my house…He’s my boy, not yours. Don’t interfere.’ Dick, like Mary subscribes to the view that the native is a ‘savage’. Mary’s heightened need to assert her position of power over the servant is thus not a result of a different racial attitude to that of her husband, but symptomatic of the lack of authority she has in the wider political economy of Southern Rhodesia’s tightly patriarchal society. The perceived inferiority of her gender, causes Mary to emphasis the status she can attain through race. Thus, as Hansen has argued, ‘race and sex impinged in complex ways on what was fundamentally a class relationship between employer and servant.’ In terms of ‘black peril’ discussions, colonial housewives tended to deflect blame on the inadequacy of servants, a tendency shown in Mary Blackwood’s complaints that the ‘natives have no idea of anything in the house…boys from Portuguese territory are excellent but our purse will not allow one.’ This directly contradicts the argument made in The White Woman’s Mistake, that ‘black peril’ was a result of women who often ‘unconsciously’ sinned ‘from ignorance’. For the solitary housewife, left alone with the domestic servant, ‘black peril’ became a mechanism for indirectly critiquing the overarching male patriarchy by which their lives were dictated. Women’s absence in scholarship exploring the ‘black peril’ is not evidence of their immunity to hysteria; rather it speaks for the strength of the white male patriarchy which often obscured women’s distinct interpretations.
Whilst often overlooked there is evidence that already by 1911 rising female voices highlighted new issues perceived to contribute to ‘black peril’, projecting a different interpretation of its causes which competed with that elevated by white European males. As Olive Schreiner, the radical feminist reformer wrote to the General Missionary Commission in 1911, ‘my feeling of course is [the] peril which had long over shadowed this country, is one which exists for all dark-skinned women at the hands of white men.’ Schreiner throws light on the perplexing absence of black women from ‘black peril’ discourses: since assaults on African women did not threaten assumed hierarchies and white security, they were overlooked as insignificant. In the Report on Assaults on Women, for example, the idea that ‘white men are often not charged for assaulting native women’ due to the ‘reluctance of the police to take them up’ is quickly dismissed as having no evidence, whereas by contrast, a whole section is dedicated to the need for ‘Greater Precautions on the Part of European Women’. As the female population expanded, growing from 34% in 1911 to 48% in 1926, criticisms of assaults and concubinage by as activist groups such as the Women’s League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), increased. In 1916 the WCTU argued that ‘the existing danger of this peril is very largely due to the bad example set by many white men in Southern Rhodesia…[who use] native women and girls for immoral purposes. Female activists uncovered new issues, and thereby injected a new dynamic into discourses around the ‘black peril’. Such developments were central to the sustained atmosphere of anxiety, and served to prolong the hysteria around inter-racial sex despite the majority of moral panics having ceased after 1916. Whilst Anderson has suggested that in Kenya women in the 1920s ‘retreated from the fray…perhaps fearing that it was their own parenting and domestic management that had come under scrutiny’ , in Southern Rhodesia the female population became increasingly vocal. The ‘black peril’ was not, therefore, a straightforward reflection of white males need to protect European women from the perverse and rampant sexuality of the native male. Rather, ‘black peril’ whilst invariably a symptom of white insecurity, was flexible and contingent, fluctuating dependent on the anxieties of individual perceivers. Whilst both men and women were capable of succumbing to ‘black peril’ hysteria, their understanding of the threat increasingly differed.
This paper has sought to illuminate how the ‘black peril’ hysteria which engulfed Southern Rhodesia at the beginning of the twentieth century was about much more than the fear that European women were vulnerable to being raped by black males. Since Kennedy’s seminal work in the 1980s , ‘black peril’ has increasingly been seen a useful area of study for throwing light on colonial societies. Whilst the sources available for this study have allowed the major contours of this phenomena to be explored, access to further material would have enhanced understandings of how ‘black peril’ scares played out across the country as a whole. Moreover, whilst attempts have been made to explore the role of women, this could be further enhanced by a broader base of primary documents, and a more in-depth investigation, potentially focusing on the divisions between same sex settlers. It is clear that in Southern Rhodesia, it was no coincidence that the ‘black peril’ ascended at the point at which the contours of the settlement were being drawn out, and the specific form of Southern Rhodesian white identity constructed. Whilst the community was diverse and multifaceted, ‘a distinctly Rhodesian identity developed from the pressing need of white settlers to define themselves in contrast to others and establish their community.’ ‘Black peril’ became a useful discursive tool for defining gender, class and race relations and creating a ‘sense of solidarity and cultural superiority that helped whites persevere despite enduring paranoia about African unrest.’
Similar themes informed ‘black peril’ crises in South Africa, and Kenya, yet panics were often shorter lived, and were not so endemic to the project of state formation. Whilst economic issues loomed large in South Africa, dominion status ensured a greater sense of political security from 1910. In Kenya, ‘black peril’ was seen to threaten those on the periphery of society, rather than overall white hegemony. By contrast, the particular demographic, economic, and political conditions of Southern Rhodesia meant that ‘black peril’ scares caught alight easily, and burned for a significant period of time. The significance of these contextual factors problematizes the implication that the particularly intense experience of ‘black peril’ in Southern Rhodesia was due to individual settlers being ‘particularly prone’. By conveying a sense of coincidence, it fails to identify how the moral panics were a result of active engagement, rather than complacent susceptibility. This is testament to the validity of Foucault’s claim that phenomena must be understood in terms of their context. A reflection of a society in motion, it was the flexibility of ‘black peril’ which, by providing scope for debate and allowing the concept to permeate into a wide range of controversies, encompassing sexual assaults, prostitution, white peril and concubinage, prolonged a sense of crisis. Such issues reveal how hysteria was perpetuated by divisions within the white community, not just by racial tensions. Whilst gender dichotomies can be problematic in that they oversimply the correlation between psychology and social identity, such distinctions can usefully reinforce how ‘black peril’ narratives could gain currency across a broad cross section of the settler community. Significantly, moral panics in had largely faded in South Africa by 1914, and in Kenya by 1926, whereas the last ‘black peril’ victim, Ndachana, in Southern Rhodesia was executed as late as 1934. What the case of Ndachana, a well-educated school teacher, revealed was that anxieties about the ‘black peril’ were not just about the present. They were about the scope for African advancement, and the fragility of white hegemony. The Southern Rhodesian ‘black peril’, perceived as a threat to assumed hierarchies of race, gender and class, gave rise to a host of hypothetical and hysterical possibilities about a ‘world turned upside down’, which perturbed the white community, propelling them into an overwhelming, and unprecedented state of moral panic.