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White Settlers in Kenya, 1900s–1920s
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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.

Brett L. Shadle

I lay out the basic argument and the theoretical bases of the book. In order to appreciate the nature of settler colonialism in Kenya – and its impact on the state and on Africans – I argue that we must inquire into how settlers envisioned themselves, their foundational ideas about the settler project, and their (real and imagined) relations with Africans, the state, and one another. I argue that white settlement: (1) was based on particular ideas about white supremacy, whiteness, and civilization; (2) was emotionally enriched through notions of paternalism and trusteeship; (3) appeared constantly under threat by Africans, colonial officials, the judiciary, and fellow settlers; and (4) was shored up daily through rituals of prestige, deference, humiliation, and violence. Through this understanding of settlers’ worldview, we can then better understanding of black peril, which represented the inversion of the emotional and ideological material out of which white settlement was made. I finish the chapter with a historical outline of early colonial Kenya.

in The souls of white folk
Brett L. Shadle

I begin this chapter by reviewing the foundational settler idea that race and civilization were intimately linked, and that whites stood in loco parentis to childlike Africans. I further explore the emotions that were concomitant with civilization and paternalism. First, settlers had to turn away those Africans who claimed “civilized” status – Christian, western-educated, dressed in European clothes. They did this humiliation. Second, I take seriously settler rhetoric of the “white man’s (and woman’s) burden.” By offering gifts – “civilization” taught through work, or medical care through very intimate bodily contact – settlers further asserted a hierarchal relationship, the internal logic of which would not allow Africans to equalize. Paternalism would become one of the defining features of settler thinking: it was both a duty to civilize Africans, and emotionally and psychologically pleasurable to do so.

in The souls of white folk
Brett L. Shadle

Settlers instead invested enormous faith and energy in what they called prestige, a kind of protective barrier surrounding them. This, whites believed, permitted them to travel, work, and live in almost total security despite their being fantastically outnumbered by Africans. Lack of deference in the most minor way suggested that prestige was fraying and, unchecked, left settlers undefended. Because prestige must attach to white skin, any white person’s individual failure to maintain prestige threatened the prestige of all white people. Thus whites demanded of each other that they lived and comported themselves in certain ways. Settlers who fell into penury, became vagrants, turned to crime, or “went native” failed miserably to possess the demeanor necessary to inspire prestige. Moreover, settlers and colonial officials each wrote their own “public transcripts” that they demanded Africans follow. Whereas settlers insisted that prestige much attach to white skin, colonial officials argued it attached to all those representing the Crown. Settlers constantly attended to white prestige, both because it was crucial to the survival of white domination, and because it seemed perpetually in danger of dissipating.

in The souls of white folk
Brett L. Shadle

This chapter investigates how settlers defined civilization in large part through gender norms, and how regulating sexual morality appeared crucial to upholding prestige. Whites marked African savagery through gender: white men and women believed that what separated them from Africans was women’s domesticity and men’s defense of their womenfolk’s honor and bodies. Despite Kenya settlers’ reputation for rampant adultery, many settlers proclaimed the need for discretion: if whites could not adhere to sexual morality, how could Africans be convinced of white superiority? More worrying was inter-racial sex. Inter-racial sex was fearful because it could suggest emotional intimacy and, thus, an inversion of the racial order. Worse still, by whites’ logic once a single white woman had fallen, the prestige of all white woman was endangered. Once white women showed themselves to be uncivilized, to be as mortal – and as immoral – as the colonized, the prestige of all white women was shown to be a sham. This led directly to black peril.

in The souls of white folk
Brett L. Shadle

This chapter examines settlers’ dedication to corporal punishment and a racially-biased legal system as props to their status as a ruling race. As philosophers and historians of pain and violence have shown, the neurological sensations resulting from corporal punishment are usually of secondary importance to the performance. A beating – with fist, boot, or whip – reinforces a hierarchy. Insofar as a challenge to prestige could be seen as humiliating to a white person, corporal punishment was humiliating to the sufferer. Settlers wished the state to be impartial only when dealing with intra-white concerns. For inter-racial disputes, they believed that the state machinery must favor whites. Unfortunately for settlers, many colonial officials and judges disagreed. Settlers railed against a judicial system that allowed Africans to charge settlers with assault, for it undermined their personal control over Africans. Africans would see not the genius of English law (settlers claimed), but only that a white magistrate had sided with a black man against a white man. It was humiliating to whites and undermined white prestige.

in The souls of white folk
Abstract only
Brett L. Shadle

This chapter has three goals. First, it situates the story told here in Kenya within the larger white colonial world of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, suggesting new ways of understanding race and colonialism worldwide. Second, it brings the story of the settler soul to the present, suggesting ways in which it has and has not changed. Third, it offers some thoughts on how the settler soul affected Africans in the colonial and post-colonial decades.

in The souls of white folk