Decrying White Peril: Interracial Sex and the Rise of Anticolonial Nationalism in the Gold Coast
The American Historical Review
Volume 119, Issue 1 (February 2014)
Carina E. Ray, Assistant Professor of African and Black Atlantic History
In the summer and fall of 1919, the African-owned Gold Coast press was awash with news stories and impassioned commentary about the postwar race riots that had recently devastated Liverpool, Cardiff, and other major port cities in Britain. Angered by the sexual politics underlying the riots, Gold Coast commentators were quick to point out that the ports’ white rioters were not the only ones aggrieved by interracial sexual relations. Atu, a regular columnist for the Gold Coast Leader, responded to news that black men were targeted for repatriation after being attacked on the ports’ streets for “consorting with white women” by reminding his readers “that in their own country white men freely consort with coloured women, forming illicit alliances, and in many cases leaving on the coast abandoned offspring to the precarious protection of needy native families.” He continued, “It does not require much skill to diagnose the canting hypocrisy underlying” the riots, but the question now was whether “any sensible man [could] suppose that these men will return to their homes to view with complacency the spectacle of white men associated with coloured women.” In a few short lines, Atu vivified the “tensions of empire” created by the movement of African men between metropole and colony, and their different systems of raced and gendered sexual access.
Not long after, the Leader published a series of commentaries under the provocative title “Immoral Sanitation.” The unnamed author of the series’ first installment declared that unseemly sexual liaisons between African women and European men had transformed the “social life” of Sekondi, a busy coastal town in the Gold Coast’s Western Province, into “a condition of depravity.” Elsewhere in the colony, “a woman who boldly acknowledges herself the kept mistress of a European is thrown out of society and virtually looked down upon by men and women of respectability,” claimed the writer. In Sekondi, however, he accused “energetic advocates of this dishonourable mode of life” of enticing young women into sexual relationships with European men, whose “carnal lust” was causing the moral deterioration of the town’s womenfolk. The claims made in the “Immoral Sanitation” series, argued Leader columnist Atu, were more broadly applicable to “other parts of the country where this traffic,” which he likened to “prostitution on the part of African women by a class of white men of a low caste,” was carried on.
The Leader’s lurid tales of illicit relationships between profligate white men and debauched African women during the early twentieth century contrast sharply with historical accounts of respectable marriages between entrepreneurial African women and European men during an earlier time period in coastal West Africa. These unions produced West Africa’s prominent Afro-European trading families and are often credited with successfully integrating European men into local West African societies and empowering African women during the long period of contact preceding the nineteenth-century advent of formal colonial rule. Interracial marriages contracted in accordance with African customary law, and less frequently those recognized as lawful by the religious and administrative bodies associated with the European presence on the coast, were indeed regular features of the region’s littoral trading enclaves. Constrained by a dearth of sources, scholars have had comparatively little to say about the range of coercive and less seemly sexual encounters, including concubinage, prostitution, and rape, that also characterized the interracial sexual economies of West Africa’s coastal trading hubs. While it is difficult to speculate about native Gold Coasters’ reactions to these relationships prior to the twentieth century, scattered commentary from as early as 1902 in the Leader, the colony’s most politically radical newspaper, suggests that disquiet over them was not new. With the appearance of the “Immoral Sanitation” series and likeminded commentaries, however, this simmering discontent boiled over into full-blown condemnation of local interracial sexual relations. These rare primary sources vividly illustrate how a diverse group of politically marginalized yet highly politicized Gold Coast men from the colony’s embattled intelligentsia, along with disillusioned demobilized soldiers and seamen in post–World War I Britain, used these illicit relationships to challenge the moral legitimacy of British colonial rule. On the one hand, by portraying African women as either immoral race traitors or innocents in need of protection from predatory Europeans, these men were able to claim a leadership role as moral stewards of the nation. On the other hand, by casting European men as sexually promiscuous interlopers, they challenged the very idea that Europeans were morally suited to rule the colonial world…
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