Uncovering ‘undesirable whites’ in the colonial archive

Can African scholars write different histories about settler societies—especially as Africans or Africanist scholars based in Africa or in the diaspora? The case of Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) is instructive.

Wankie Motel, Rhodesia, 1975. Image via cloud-cuckoo-land.com on Flickr CC.

Without sanitizing colonialism and settler colonialism, how can Africans (re)think and (re)write critical social and cultural histories about white societies and settler communities? And how can we do so using the colonial archive largely produced by the colonists who controlled the state apparatus? Colonists wielded the scepter of producing knowledge on and about Africans. In the course of their administration, white colonial bureaucrats, politicians, clergymen and their metropolitan counterparts all produced records, archives, manuscripts and state-sanctioned publications. With these power relations evident in the colonial archive, can we write different histories about settler societies—especially as Africans or Africanist scholars based in Africa or in the diaspora? Indeed, can we invert the gaze and use the colonial archive to tell us about the nature of settler societies?

My chapter “Immigration and settlement of ‘undesirable’ whites in Southern Rhodesia,” in the book Rethinking White Societies in Southern Africa, 1930s–1990s, edited by Duncan Money and Danelle van Zyl-Hermann, speaks to these very issues. It contributes to new social and cultural histories of Rhodesian white society by showing that, while the colonial state was obsessed with producing knowledge on and about Africans, classifying them into different “tribes,” ethnic groups and so forth, it in fact did the same to some whites. It subjected the lives of those whites, whose behavior was deemed “deviant” from the (shifting) norms of white society, to exceptional levels of state surveillance, attempting to understand why they behaved in the manner they did and to discipline them into social conformity.

Race, class, and ethnicity in settler societies

In historical writing on settler societies, the dominant narrative is that race determined colonial privilege, power and security. Yet my work suggests that ideas about class, political ideology, culture and ethnicity also played a key role. In mid-century Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), these were sources of tension within the settler community, and saw whites classified into categories of “desirable” and “undesirable.” The Rhodesian state routinely deported whites it deemed undesirable.

Various factors beyond race determined white undesirability. It is well known that, officially, the Rhodesian state sought white Britons as their desired immigrants to bolster the white minority state. Yet individuals in this category could become undesirable. For instance, after the British immigrant Charles Taylor led a strike by white railway workers in 1954, the government branded him a communist and dangerous demagogue of the Mussolini and Hitler type. Despite Taylor belonging to the officially preferred group, he was deported.

In addition to political attitudes, individuals’ socio-economic circumstances or ethnic background could also override race to render them undesirable. The Rhodesia settler community and the colonial state termed a number of post-war British immigrants as “white trash” and as “cotton-wool,” in reference to their class position. Worse seemed to be Portuguese, Greek and Italian immigrants, who threatened the “British” nature of Southern Rhodesia. Rhodesian whites regarded them as “inferior” because of their cultural extraction, alleged questionable moral conduct and unhygienic habits, and poor English language. In official documents, they were termed “wops, dagos” and “scum of the earth.” They were blamed for freely associating with Asian, Coloured and African women, living in seamy conditions and their indecent behavior was against rhetoric notions of white purity.

Files in the National Archives of Zimbabwe are filled with examples. In November 1954, Joao Salgado Ferreira entered Rhodesia and, after being dismissed by his employer, walked around the country accepting casual employment. He was subsequently joined by his wife—three months pregnant by Ferreira’s brother—and three children. Following an investigation, the state found the family living in squalor. Ferreira was deemed an embarrassment to the industrious and respectable self-image of whites, and deported as an undesirable immigrant shortly after. The transgression of accepted racial and sexual boundaries could have similar consequences. Portuguese migrant Joao Filipe Viegas was deported in 1956 for having an affair with a coloured woman. The same year, four Greek railway workers were deported for alleged homosexual practices. So the list continues.

Settler society projected itself as the custodian of “civilization and modernity” in Africa, a united white race justified in its subjugation of the indigenous population. The archives reveal that this homogeneity was clearly a fallacy, and this self-understanding was fragile at best. There were layers of the contradictions, tensions and divisions within the settler communities.

Colonial borders and politics of exclusion

The presence of undesirable whites in the colony provide insight into the limits of the power of the colonial state. Migration from metropolitan centers to colonies and the movement between and among settler societies meant constant movement over colonial borders, and colonial immigration officials could not always act as the gatekeepers they were supposed to be. In 1955, for instance, the Rhodesian Government declared Joaquim Antonio De Lemos a prohibited immigrant and he was deported. As if to mock Rhodesian immigration officials, De Lemos swiftly re-entered Rhodesia, and proceeded to run an informal Employment Bureau at Bulawayo undetected, making his money by charging exorbitant fees to Portuguese artisans he recruited. He was arrested again.

Clearly, race was not the only factor determining the fortunes of those living in colonial societies. For white settlers, ideological, class, ethnic, economic and social factors shaped the politics of inclusion and exclusion. Not all whites were linked with the rhetoric of white moral purity, respectability and other settler “standards” associated with colonial “civilization.” Those who failed to live up to the expected settler and white colonial self-imposed standards became undesirable. Depending with time and space, whiteness could mean nothing or could mean everything—and this could shift, depending on prevailing circumstances. However, while being white was sometimes not enough, it was certainly better than being black. Even whites excluded from or on the margins of respectable society retained some privilege and power in comparison to Africans of all classes.

These examples from the archive demonstrate that colonial record-keeping can be employed to uncover uncomfortable—and too often overlooked—historical truths about colonial-era white societies. Moreover, we can make connections between the settler colonial and post-colonial African communities. The system of excluding settlers considered less white has, to some extent, parallels in post-colonial African states and governments. Many African leaders, while paying lip service to ideas of national unity, rely on ethnicity, nepotism, exclusion of minority groups, and often treat migrants from other African countries and opposition political parties with utmost disdain. In conclusion, my work shows that as Africans or Africanist scholars, we can use the colonial archive to write critically about the nature of settler societies.

Further Reading