Black peril and the victimisation of black men in Southern Rhodesia


DURING colonial Rhodesia, the ‘black peril’ referred to the fear of colonial settlers that African men wanted to have sexual relations with white women.
Such perceptions were seen in countries colonised by the British.
In South Africa, India, Papua New Guinea and Rhodesia, it was the same.
The black peril was a colonial-based fear that started in Southern Rhodesia and survived all the way to the independence of Zimbabwe.
In Southern Rhodesia, black peril presented a traumatic situation to the black men.
It was the widespread fear by the whiteman of the early 1900s that came as a result of the 1896 Chimurenga war of resistance.
As the historian Anne McIntyre has noted, after the war, “resultant embitterment lingered to the extent that throughout the first decades of colonialism there were periodic campaigns to control the supposedly excessive fundamental urges of African men.”
Between 1902 and 1916, the hysteria increased as white women accused black men of rape or sexual assault.
This led to the passing of a series of laws ostensibly to protect white women.
The Legislation Immorality Suppression Ordinance of September 1903 prescribed capital punishment for attempted rape.
This law meant that a black man could face the death penalty for anything regarded as attempted rape.
The same law also imposed maximum sentences of two years imprisonment for white women who slept with black men and five years for black men who slept with white women.
These laws resulted in the executions of many African men and long prison sentences for hundreds of others.
In Rhodesia, black men worked in the domestic service, in mining and farming labours.
As Anne McIntyre has noted, “the first half century of colonialism, domestic service ranked third as a source of African employment therefore that meant that white women spent most of their days alone with black male servants.
“It would be in this situation that the complex paranoia called the ‘black peril’ would be manufactured.
“The ‘perils’ were necessary in order to solidify racial and gender differences and thereby to construct white and male supremacist social order.”
The Rhodesian settlers viewed the assault on the body of a white woman as an attack on the whole white community.
As a result, everyone within that community was outraged and they sought to punish the black man.
This meant that an all-white colonial jury always found a black man guilty of sexually assaulting a white woman.
In 1910, an African domestic worker called ‘Alukuleta’ was accused of raping Bessie Cromer of Umtali (Mutare).
Although the event is historically patchy, the story is told by historians about Alukuleta and how he went into the madam’s kitchen at night to get water or food. It was assumed he was stealing because domestic workers did not share food with the masters.
Madam walked into the kitchen and Alukuleta supposedly raped her.
He was arrested and sent to trial in Salisbury on October 26 on a charge of rape. During Alukuleta’s trial, masses of people gathered in the courtroom and there were protests outside.
Alukuleta was found guilty and sentenced to death.
He was brought before the High Commissioner for South Africa for review on November 16.
In an article titled ‘Criminal Assaults on White Women’ dated HC Deb 07 February 1911 vol 21 251: “Sir Charles Hunter asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether the Governor-General of South Africa has recently commuted the death penalty on a native, convicted for criminally assaulting a white woman near Umtali, in Rhodesia?”
Then Lord Gladstone, based in Cape Town asked the presiding Judge, by telegram to impose a life sentence instead of a death sentence.
Alukuleta lived and died in prison for the rest of his life.
Did Alukuleta rape or did he not rape the madam?
That case will never be resolved because, in the eyes of the white men, Alukuleta was already guilty of rape before he was charged.
Black peril attitudes imposed such racist perceptions that influenced court decisions on rape.
And yet, one aspect of history that is still underplayed or hidden is the role of white women prostitutes who came to the colonies.  
A Rhodesian government report of 1914 noted the following: “On the question of prostitution by white women with natives, it is pertinent to state that the prevalence of ‘black peril’ during the years 1902 and 1903 in Bulawayo was mainly attributed by the general public to the presence and operation of the women referred to in the instances quoted under the heading of ‘white peril’.”
On the other hand, the sexual abuses of black women by white men, was far more frequent.
There was no law to prohibit white men from having sexual relations with black women.
White men outnumbered white women by nearly two to one.
Due to the scarcity of women, the white men took advantage of black women and used them as sexual subjects.
In many ways, as history and oral record have shown, these sexual encounters were not often based on mutual attraction, but on coercion, just like the masters and slaves, feudal lords and serfs, conquerors and coloniser and the colonised.
Throughout Southern Rhodesia during colonial rule, white men did as they pleased with black women.
Colonising the land meant they could colonise the women as well.
The black peril belief was basically an essential factor or ingredient in building and maintaining a white colonial supremacist society.
Joan Maries Johnson in Journal of Women’s History 2002, wrote ‘Black Peril, White Virtue: Sexual Crime in Southern Rhodesia’ documenting the historical details and analysis of black peril laws passed in early 20th century Southern Rhodesia.
She noted that, “sexual assault during the colonial period of Zimbabwe caused serious consequences to the society; including the advancement of race and gender discrimination, the halting of social and economic development by the native population, and also harmful psychological sufferings.”
In the end, the victimisation of the black man accused of sexual assault was a prevalent and disruptive practice in colonial Zimbabwe.
We shall never know how many were sent to prison or killed for crimes that they did not commit.


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