- Black Peril, White Virtue: Sexual Crime in Southern Rhodesia, 1902–1935
The larger theme of this book is paranoia and paradox. More specifically, it focuses on the obsession of white male colonizers in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with the sexuality of colonized African men, most notably in relation to white women. The imagined “black peril” that resulted from that fixation, Jock McCulloch argues, was a major feature of Rhodesian white settler society between 1902 and 1935, and especially from 1902 to 1916.
That is the paranoia. The paradox is that historically, including the period covered by McCulloch’s book, British society did not take sexual assaults against women seriously. British victims of rape generally kept silent, and the perpetrators rarely faced exposure, let alone prosecution. Not so in the British colony of [End Page 815] Southern Rhodesia. There, by McCulloch’s count, the charge of sexual assault resulted in the execution of some twenty men, along with the imprisonment and flogging of another two hundred. All of the alleged victims were white women, while all of the accused were colonized black men. Few of the convictions were warranted by the evidence. McCulloch adjudges that many of those convicted “were at worst guilty of petty theft or common assault” (p. 185). None received anything that could be remotely described as a fair trial. The methods may have been rough, and they certainly involved a sharp departure from British norms in dealing with sexual assault, but the protection of white virtue from the alleged black peril demanded nothing less.
Settler colonial societies like Southern Rhodesia—with their relatively large European populations, as compared to the non-settler colonies—were especially prone to the racial and sexual anxieties that produced black-peril outbursts. Neighboring South Africa, with its even larger white-settler population, experienced similar “moral panics.”
The Southern Rhodesian settlers, never to be outdone in the arena of anti-African demagogy, were among the leaders in both instigating the phenomenon and responding to it. Thus in 1903 the colonial legislature—a body consisting entirely of white men, a combination of individuals appointed by the authorities and elected by the settlers—unanimously passed a black-peril law. The measure prescribed the death penalty for attempted rape. It was the first such law in the British Empire, and it came at a time when other British colonies, like Australia, were abolishing capital punishment for actual rape.
To the Rhodesian settlers, black peril posed a threat that was singular in its communal nature. Unlike the occasional case of an African charged with murdering a white person, black-peril assaults, McCulloch argues, “were perceived not just as an attack upon the body of a woman but as an attack upon the white community itself” (p. 4). Prosecutors faced few hurdles in black-peril cases. Colonial juries—another all-male and all-white institution during the period in question—were quick to convict black men accused of sexually assaulting white women. Although eschewing the worst aspects of US-style racist vigilantism, such as lynching—a point McCulloch may have profitably made, but does not—Rhodesian black-peril cases were no less choreographed. The brief kangaroo proceedings that passed for trials went hand in hand with the public expression of white outrage, as exemplified in rallies, fulminations in the press, and demands for still tougher action by the colonial legislature and the administration. “Few charged with such crimes gave evidence in their defense. They were tried in a foreign language under a belittling nickname and spent most of their trial silent and probably uncomprehending at the ritual being played out” (p. 27).
McCulloch identifies two central features of the phenomenon. The first and most obvious is that black peril was a colonial malady. There was little relationship between perception and reality. The fear of assault ran well ahead of allegations of rape, not to mention actual rapes. The second central feature of black peril speaks volumes of the real fears of its chief instigators: the men of...