Black And Yellow Perils In Colonial Africa


Black And Yellow Perils In Colonial Africa Essay, Research Paper

” Explain the obsession amongst European settlers in sub-Saharan Africa with ‘black’ and ‘yellow’ perils”.


There was a general outrage at the concept of mixed race relations within colonial Europe, especially within Britain, who did not take the same line on the subject of assimilation as their French and especially Portuguese counterparts. Although mixed relationships between white males and coloured females were tolerated, similar such relationships concerning white women were not, as this raised imperial issues of race theory and Darwinistic eugenics.

A prime example of this was the reaction to the engagement of the son of the recently subjugated leader of the Ndebele to a Miss Kitty Jewell, an English woman. Indeed, “The proposed marriage seems to have been a trigger for a spate of articles raising, overtly now, the thorny issue of miscegenation”. The controversy surrounding this inter-racial union was accentuated by the fact that not only did this take place in England itself, but also the fact that the African in question had been an exhibit at the ‘Savage South Africa’ exposition. This accentuated the fears that formed the basis for the paranoia concerning ‘yellow’ and especially ‘black’ perils in imperial Africa, and also enhanced worries concerning racial degeneration. The result of this and one or two other isolated incidents, was that women were forbidden to attend the majority of any subsequent exhibitions, if not nationally, then certainly in the London area.

The appearance of scientific racism in the second half of the nineteenth century, the basis for which was social Darwinism and anatomical measurement, enabled white colonists to justify their belief in their own racial superiority. Once this superiority had been established, the idea of maintaining this level of evolutionary advancement through the avoidance of sexual contact with other races became an all consuming concern.” If European women, ‘apparently of good birth’ were to become tainted by sexual contact with black Africans, the imperial race would not survive” .

In an attempt reduce the possibility of inter-racial relations, and thus protect the purity of the race, exhibitions and dramatic re-enactments were often used within Britain to re-affirm racial boundaries.

” It was considered necessary to bring home to the viewer the inconceivability of a white woman actually entertaining the notion of a romantic liaison with a black man, while paradoxically the reverse was actually anticipated”

In South Africa the Dutch attempted to avoid racial impurity through the passing of the mixed marriage laws, which prevented white women from assimilating black partners or children to the Imperial race. This was partly in response to the fear that black men may try to marry white women in order to improve their social standing, and thus gain the same rights and privileges as the colonists.


Middle class women seen as responsible for the ‘ploiferation and strengthening of the breed’ were pursuing new opportunities in education and employment, and thus were ’shirking their imperial motherly duties’. With this in mind, ‘new’ women were often compared unfavourably with black women, (who despite being oppressed by their societies, still fulfilled their maternal and wifely obligations) in an attempt to chastise feminist tendencies within Britain. The issue of motherhood greatly limited female employment opportunities, especially in the colonies, and manifested itself in the form of anti-employment legislation and intentionally inadequate training for women.


In the early years of European Imperial involvement within Africa, the idea of a male white settler having sexual relations with a native woman (this was later to become known as the ‘yellow peril’) was considered to be perfectly acceptable, even in Britain. In some cases this was sanctioned to the degree that it virtually became part of Imperial policy, and the early stages of empire became a stage for sexual adventurers ( although not to the extent that many publications of the time would have us believe!). Indeed, the colonial Portuguese promoted the ideal of ‘lusotropicalism’, the Belgian administration accepted widespread concubinage and all the main colonial powers sanctioned Imperial brothels.

Although white women were often accused of destroying this multi-racial nature of empire, the Victorian purity campaigns within British colonies were a precursor to the encouragement of women in a colonial environment. As a rule, white men only brought out their wives once the European nations had reached the height of their colonial power, a policy that was encouraged to cement the established settler colonies. This colonial demand for white women was partially as a result of the realisation that early colonial beliefs that tropical climates could render women infertile were wrong, and partially due to logistical necessity, but was justified with reference to the ‘yellow peril’; “The panic in the 1920’s over fertility levels, depopulation and labour requirements was articulated around issues of morality”.

As Imperial power approached its zenith, and the disparity between the levels of male and female colonial population began to diminish, the concern of white men’s susceptibility to seduction by black women took on some significance. This was for a variety of reasons, notably the increased importance of the stable white Imperial family, and the recognition of the fact that with such a huge population disparity between the colonised and their colonisers, the white settlers needed to maintain a certain distance from the blacks to keep their mystique. In addition, the increased presence of colonial wives and single white women increased the number of ‘appropriate’ sexual partners for white males, and thus the justification for inter-racial unions ( lack of women), rapidly diminished.

However, even when the numbers of white colonial women approached those of colonial men, the idea of the seduction of white men by African women was never taken nearly as seriously as the reverse. This is largely an issue of logistics as much as sexual inequality, as a mixed child born to a black woman would be considered black (and therefore could be disregarded), but a mixed child born to a white woman caused problems.


The basis of the idea of the ‘black peril’ was the fear of sexual assault of white women by the native peoples of the European colonies, which stemmed from the theory that black men could not contain their sexual urges. This theory re-affirmed racially motivated ’scientific’ ideas that the colonising Europeans were both evolutionary and culturally superior to their Imperial subjects, due to their conquering of their sexual instincts. This assertion that blacks were unable to control their sexuality animalised them, and thus served to confirm the theories of racial science which legitimised the presence of their European conquerors, who saw themselves as civilising the ‘dark continent’ . This coincides with theories that women’s sexuality was evolutionary inferior to men’s, and the concept of colonial women’s vulnerability to sexual assault from black men re-confirms male superiority. Thus European men were able to use the ‘black peril’ scares as a method of cementing the existing sexual, social and racial boundaries which nineteenth century European culture had established.

As the nature of ‘black peril’ scares was that they increased during periods of worry concerning imperial control (due to tension as much as anything else), the concept of sexual abuse of white women by black men proved to be useful to those enforcing the Imperial regimes. Reports of sexually degrading crimes (whether truthful or otherwise) provided justification for acts of repressive extreme violence against colonised peoples, which ensured the retaining of the balance of power.

The majority of cases of ‘black peril’ took place within the household, purely due to the fact it was the only place where white women and black men were in extended contact. Initially it was believed that the ‘houseboys’ (African male servants- African women were not allowed in domestic service in family homes due to fear of ‘yellow peril’) were the sole perpetrators of sexual relations between themselves and their mistresses. It later came to light that inter-racial liaisons within the domestic environment were invariably initiated by the mistress or white female servant in question. In a significant number of reported cases, employers had manufactured charges of sexual assault against ‘houseboys’, either as a pretext for sacking them before their wages were due, or in some cases bring an end to any liaison that had occurred on the mistress’ initiation. Also, in times of economic hardship, white female servants sometimes accused the houseboys of rape in order to ensure job security and maintain a higher wage rate.

Typically during the moral panic of ‘black perils’, reports of rape attempted rape and indecent assault rose sharply, while conviction numbers remained the same. Whether these falsified reports of sexual attacks were for the aforementioned motives, or purely a result of mass hysteria is unclear.

Although many cases of the rape of white servants or wives by black men were fabricated, the fears concerning such incidents were real enough. Examples of this fear include the White Women’s Protection Ordinance of 1926 in New Guinea, which provided “the death penalty for any person convicted of the crime of rape or attempt of rape upon a European women or girl”, and the formation of citizen militia’s in Southern Rhodesia and Kenya in the inter-war period. In addition, it is important to remember that although many reports of sexual assault were untrue, some sexual attacks did take place, predominantly by gangs of disgruntled black men, Mrs Harrison’s rape being a case in point.


When looking at the European (although primarily British) obsession with ‘black’ and ‘yellow’ perils in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the first things that springs to mind is the sexual double standards of the whole issue. For the majority of the colonial period it was seen as perfectly acceptable for a European male to find himself in a mixed race relationship, whereas the opposite was seen as treachery upon one’s race. Although much of this can be attributed to fears concerning racial impurity and miscegenation, the patriarchal nature of European society is of similar importance to the bastardisation of Darwin’s evolutionary theories.

The scares of the ‘black peril’ were not entirely falsified to suit the motives of the European colonisers, as it was a representation of the two main colonial European fears: Anti-colonial violence and racial degeneration. Fully aware of the vulnerable (in 1900 only 4.4% of the population of Rhodesia, Europe’s largest African settler colony, was white) and the tenuous nature of their position, even a single isolated incident could spark off hysteria and panic.

However, it would be fair to say that the majority of these waves of ‘perils’ were a pretext to justify the actions of colonial settlers and administrators, and also preserve the existing theories of race, gender and class.


1) “White settlers in Tropical Africa” L. H. Gann & P. Duignan


2) ” Re-inventing Africa” Annie. E. Coombes (1994)

3) ” Tensions of Empire” F. Cooper & A. l. Stoler


4) ” Africans- THE HISTORY OF A CONTINENT ” J. Iliffe (1995)

5) ” Chronicle of the World” D. Mercer (1996)

6) “Imperial leather. Race, Gender and Sexuality in the colonial context” A. McClintock (1995)


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