The souls of white folk

White Settlers in Kenya, 1900s–1920s

Brett L. Shadle
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Kenya’s white settlers have long captivated observers. They are alternately celebrated and condemned, painted as romantic pioneers or hedonistic bed-hoppers or crude racists. If we wish to better understand Kenya’s tortured history, however, we must examine settlers not as caricatures, but as people inhabiting a unique historical moment. We must ask, what animated their lives? What comforted them and what unnerved them, to whom did they direct love, and to whom violence? The Souls of White Folk takes seriously – though not uncritically – what settlers said, how they viewed themselves and their world. It argues that the settler soul was composed of a series of interlaced ideas: settlers equated civilization with a (hard to define) whiteness; they were emotionally enriched through claims to paternalism and trusteeship over Africans; they felt themselves constantly threatened by Africans, by the state, and by the moral failures of other settlers; and they daily enacted their claims to supremacy through rituals of prestige, deference, humiliation, and violence. The book explains how settlers could proclaim real affection for their African servants, tend to them with intimate medical procedures, as well as whip, punch and kick them – for these were central to the joy of settlement, and the preservation of settlement. It explains why settlers could be as equally alarmed by an African man with a fine hat, Russian Jews, and a black policeman, as by white drunkards, adulterers, and judges – all posed dangers to white prestige.

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‘Brett Shadle has with "The Souls of White Folk" achieved an extraordinary book. His engaging prose makes it both a smart and entertaining reading.'
Norman Aselmeyer
December 2016

‘It does, however, dig deep, and it addresses two vital questions: who did settlers think they were? and why did they think and act as they did? Both these questions, especially when situated within the wider frame of ethnicity, have important comparative dimensions that a close reading of Souls reveals.'
Richard Waller, Bucknell University Lewisburg, Pennsylvania
ASR Vol 59, No 3

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