'Civilised domesticity', race and European attempts to regulate African marriage practices in colonial Natal, 1868-1875

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This paper examines a controversy that erupted in the 1860s over attempts by European settlers in the colony of Natal to regulate African marriages. In 1869 the Natal government promulgated a law enabling the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal to regulate African marital customs. The regulations proclaimed under Law 1 of 1869 imposed a tax on every marriage contracted by Africans, restricted the practice of lobola (bridewealth) and required that brides publicly express their assent before an official witness for marriages to be valid. The implementation of these measures unleashed a storm of protest that eventually forced the government to abandon the marriage tax in 1875. Intriguingly, however, while there was African resistance to the law, it was principally the outrage of the colony's European settlers and missionaries that forced the government's hand. This paper explores the creation and implementation of Law 1 of 1869, the subsequent controversy and the abandonment of the marriage tax. In doing so it argues that in the 1860s and 1870s few white Natalians embraced the idea of innate differences between races, and instead employed environmentalist discourses of ‘civilisation’ and ‘savagery’ to explain distinctions between themselves and Africans. These discourses were gendered, for domestic family arrangements in African and European societies were used as the benchmark against which the relative levels of ‘civilisation’ of whites and Africans were measured. This attempt to regulate African family life and the controversy it provoked therefore highlights the extent to which British views of marriage and proper gender roles influenced the practice of colonialism in nineteenth century southern Africa.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)340-355
JournalThe History of the Family
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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