New Books | Queering Colonial Natal

Debates over access to alcohol served to underline the emergent crises of white settler power that would grip the colony in the first decades of the 20th century.

This is an excerpt from TJ Tallie, “Sobriety and Settlement: The Politics of Alcohol,” in Queering Colonial Natal: Indigeneity and the Violence of Belonging in Southern Africa. Copyright 2019 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Reprinted by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

Race and gendered violence under Natal’s alcohol laws

In October of 1888, as debates over Indian and African drinking took place in the Legislative Assembly, Durban attorney Samuel Rowse sent a lengthy petition to Arthur Havelock, then governor of Natal. The letter specifically asked for the commutation of a death sentence that had been meted out to two Indian men, Mootosamy and Apparoo, convicted of the rape of Subjan, an Indian woman. The petition, which was signed by several of the jury members on the case, sought to review the evidence in the case and question the culpability of the men involved. The case, and its subsequent petitioning, demonstrate the power of raced and gendered hierarchies within colonial Natal, particularly in relation to alcohol access, offering an essential means of understanding the abstract nature of colonial citizenship and inclusion. 

Mootosamy and Apparoo were convicted by a jury in October of 1888 of having sexually assaulted Subjan on a deserted native footpath as they were all returning home from a day at the races near Umzinto village, a coastal community about 40 miles south of Durban, known for its sugar production. In her testimony, Subjan asserted that three months earlier she had been walking home alone along the deserted shortcut, where she noticed two men and two boys were following her. Subjan asserted that Mootosamy (whom she recognised) and Apparoo (whom she did not) dragged her into the grass, robbed her of her jewelry, and pinned her down, each man assaulting her multiple times. This assertion was supported by the evidence of the two young Indian boys also on the road, who did not witness the rape itself but could testify to the dragging into the grass and the larger aspects of the assault. As the attorney for Mootosamy and Apparoo, Samuel Rowse worked to undo the damaging impact of such testimony, and sought resolutely to discredit Subjan as a witness primarily by attacking her along raced and gendered lines – all around her use of alcohol. 

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In order to win reprieve for his clients, Rowse sought to undermine Subjan’s authority as a witness – and her legitimacy as a victim – by referencing her purported alcohol consumption. “Upon cross examination, witness admitted that she had taken one glass of rum at the races but denied that she was drunk,” Rowse asserted bluntly. He did, however, reluctantly have to admit that “all the witnesses for the crown, although pressed upon this point, persisted in affirming that the woman did not appear to be worse for liquor”. Yet Rowse had already begun to contend indirectly that Subjan’s alleged rape was actually her responsibility, a direct result of her moral permissiveness demonstrated through the consumption of alcohol. In recounting the details of the trial, Rowse worked to posit an alternate reading of the brutal events on that July evening, one that placed the blame squarely upon Subjan’s implied immorality: “[T]here was nothing in the Evidence of these witnesses as given at the trial inconsistent with the theory that complainant was drunk and was found lying about on the public Road in a position to her safety if not removed, and that the Prisoners, one of whom (Mootosamy) had been intimately acquainted with her, endeavoured to remove her off the road – that she became restive as inebriated persons usually do, and that they made frequent attempts to get her along the road.”

In Rowse’s retelling, Mootosamy and Apparoo neither raped nor stole; rather, they offered assistance to a drunken woman by the side of the road, whose own indiscretions had placed her at inordinate personal risk. 

Having undermined Subjan’s reputation by alleging that she was a drunkard and therefore morally suspect, Rowse then moved to deny the legitimacy of her status as a victim of assault. By painting a picture of Subjan not as an innocent victim who had been assailed on her way home after only consuming a legally allowed glass of rum, but rather as a drunken, wanton woman wandering shamelessly without the protection or propriety of her husband, Rowse sought to completely undercut the idea that she had been raped at all. Indeed, by emphasising her solitary status as well as her public drinking, Rowse could then argue “there is no doubt [the] complainant is a woman of notoriously immoral character”. By wandering freely without sanction and in contravention of what proper behaviour should be for an Indian woman, Subjan, in Rowse’s words, had invited her own assault, if such an assault had even happened. Having demolished her character, Rowse then insisted that it was “physically impossible for the prisoners to have effected their purpose” as Subjan had claimed. Rather, for Rowse, “there was no evidence (beyond the statement of the woman herself) which proved conclusively that, assuming both or either of the prisoners to have had connection with the complainant it was without her consent”. It is at this point that Rowse’s argument finally comes to fruition: Subjan could not have been raped because she was most likely drunk. If she was not drunk, her drinking and her lack of male accompaniment demonstrates her immoral behaviour, which means that her body itself was not effectively virtuous to resist male advances. Rowse’s gambit was ultimately successful as Havelock was convinced by this gendered reasoning by way of alcohol; he commuted the sentence as requested. 

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Subjan’s story complicates the manner in which alcohol consumption was understood by observers in the 19th century as a question of morality. Religious commenters like Mzamo saw African alcohol consumption as a profound form of demoralisation, a point shared by the colony’s legislators when they attempted to constrain the dangerous specter of indigenous drinking. White men like Swindells and Stransham, who contravened societal expectations around drink, had to maneuver around the idea that they had committed a temporary but undeniably moral failing. Yet the very problem of white drinking relied upon an understanding of African and Indian drinkers as inherently degraded and immoral. Subjan’s case moves this even further, offering a sadly familiar tale of morality tied implicitly to raced and gendered expectations. Her assailants received a reduced sentence directly as an understanding of her drunkenness as a marker of her immorality. Raced and gendered understandings of alcohol consumption were often expressed through a lens of morally (in)appropriate behaviour, with vastly differing expectations for offenders. Such an outcome recalls Cathy Cohen’s assertion that bodies are targeted along a variety of intersections in the midst of white supremacist heteronormativity. In this instance, settler observers interpreted Subjan’s aberrant status in relation to alcohol as an altogether larger indication of moral failure. By rendering Subjan queer in relation to gendered and raced norms of behaviour, Natal’s legal system also made the crime perpetrated against her less serious. 

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Two years after Subjan’s case, the Natal Advertiser reported on a “Nasty Case” involving settler men, native women and presumptions about alcohol, race and gender. Two European men, a Mr H Phillips and R Williams, were charged in September with supplying liquor to two young native women. One of the women, Nmatu, reported that the men had “enticed” her and her friend Topsy away to a remote beach near Durban “where they gave them drink – the one from a bottle of gin, and the other from a bottle of pontac.” However, it appeared that Williams and Phillips did not simply plan for a late-night tipple. Nmatu claimed, “The men then caught hold of them and they called out, after which the police came and arrested the four of them.” It would appear from this brief incident in the newspaper that the two men assumed that alcohol consumption for women implied a loose and easy sexuality. Settler discourse asserted that African women drinking publicly, much like Indian women, demonstrated a particular lack of moral fibre. While generally, African men were seen as lacking the proper (white) masculine value of self-control around spirits, African women were rendered promiscuous and easily accessible for white desires. The news report suggests that the sexualized interactions between the European men and Zulu women were distinctly nonconsensual, as the women subsequently cried out and attracted police attention. 

In this instance, alcohol consumption maps directly onto the day-to-day raced and gendered realities of settler colonialism in Natal. The Advertiser reported that when Nmatu and Topsy cried out, the first person to respond was a native policeman, who came upon the two men “holding on by the girls”. Immediately Williams and Phillips sought not to apologise or confess to the officer, but rather to offer him liquor in hope of winning him over. In this instance the two European men attempted to use their exclusive privilege to alcohol as a means of purchasing favour with a Zulu man who was legally barred from consumption. In so doing, the men may have hoped to build a masculine alliance across racial inequalities in order to prevent discipline for their actions against Nmatu and Topsy. The nameless constable, however, was not convinced, and soon other policemen joined the group on the beach. The two women were fined 10s for breaking African curfew laws, but the men were fined £5 each. While the attendant judge expressed revulsion, claiming “he had never heard a nastier case”, the two men were tried not for attempted rape or for any potential violence toward the native women, but rather for serving Africans alcohol and thereby breaking laws of racial distinction. The stories of Subjan, Nmatu, and Topsy illustrate the gendered as well as raced nature of alcohol consumption in the late 19th century. In particular, aggressive, invasive displays of masculinity could be viewed as legitimate in the face of a debased female morality compromised by alcohol consumption. Cases like those of Kumalo, Subjan, Topsy and Nmatu provide rare on the ground views of lived experience under Natal’s alcohol laws. Additionally, instances like these, reported in popular colonial newspapers and sent in reports between colonial officials, would have informed and helped shape the rhetoric of settler legislators as they passed laws governing alcohol consumption, particularly the major reorganisation of liquor law that took place in 1890. Yet at the same time that Indians and Africans found their liquor and utshwala rights under attack, white settlers too found themselves increasingly restricted in their alcohol consumption as legislators debated legal restrictions on drink, steeped in the rhetoric of moral fitness yet again. 

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By the early 1890s, white men who repeatedly fell to the enticements of alcohol had begun to attract pity and sympathy in official circles, instead as being seen as mere moral failures. While debating an Inebriates’ Bill in 1894, Henry Bale attempted to humanise white male examples of alcoholic behaviour. Standing before the Legislative Assembly, Bale argued that he had known a professional man, who, if he were not incapable of avoiding drink, “would have been an ornament to society and a useful member of the community”. This man had asked to be put into prison in order to prevent him from continuing to drink. The request was refused, and the man died impoverished in the streets. Reflecting on the fate of the unnamed colonist and other men like him, Bale continued: “I suppose that this man’s will, like the will of so many others under similar circumstances, was enervated, that he was unable to control himself, that he had lost to a large extent one of the attributes of his manhood – the power of self-control.” Bale’s argument in favour of quarantine over criminalisation for alcoholism, however, does not signal a change in the raced or gendered assumptions that supported attempts to legally control alcohol consumption in Natal. Rather, Bale upholds such formulations through his calls for legal reform. By situating the unfortunate colonist’s failing as losing an attribute of his manhood, Bale illustrated the performative and contingent nature of race and masculinity in colonial Natal. If alcohol was a privilege specifically reserved for the enjoyment of whites (and ideally men) who possessed a monopoly over full social inclusion within a settler colony, then alcoholism itself belied the limits of settlement – it was a visceral example of the failing of presumed white male superiority in colonial society. More importantly, this rhetoric privileges self-control, a trait presented as unique to white settlers (indeed, the lack of self-control factored highly into debates over why Africans and Indians should be restricted from drinking). 

A year later, Bale continued his drive for leniency, advocating the establishment of settler “retreats” (which naturally, would only be for European men). Speaking specifically about the needs of white settler men, Bale continued: “[A] drunkard is a curse to his home, a curse to his wife, and a curse to his children, who are influenced not only by his bad example but are brought to beggary and degradation. If, however, that man is confined . . . it is possible that after his restoration he will be able to fulfill his duties as a husband and a father.” 

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Bale’s speech underscored the stakes. In his formulation, the destructiveness of antisocial drinking rendered settler men incapable of filling their “duties” as husbands and fathers, which were to produce hierarchies of order and control as well as reproduce white settler populations in a colony where indigenous peoples outnumbered them eight to one. White alcoholics ran the risk of degradation, a critical problem in a society that depended upon racial hierarchy. Indeed, the threat of degradation recalled the construction of the African and Indian subject as inherently aberrant and weak-willed in relation to alcohol. White settler masculinity, then, had to be constantly made and remade through the performance of self-control in relation to alcohol, lest the very structure that rendered non-European bodies as queer and degraded in turn define them.

Despite the beginning shifts in views of alcoholism, white self-control over alcohol consumption remained tightly linked to notions of respectability and proper claims to rule in Natal. The racialised component of alcohol as a preserve of white settler enjoyment often served to counter manifestations of the global temperance movement in Natal. While drunkenness was problematic and alcohol a potential vice, the ability to drink served as a racialised marker of distinction that white settlers, particularly moderate drinking men, were reluctant to relinquish. As early as 1881 settlers adamantly protested proposed temperance laws that restricted access to drink and instead offered “wholesome” entertainments aimed at young white men, arguing: “It does not, of course, matter whether young men play billiards and drink or not, so long as they commit no excesses. There is nothing whatever abstractly vicious in either billiards or wine. All reasonable and reasoning people are agreed upon that point. . . . Nobody disputes the fact that a man who gets drunk makes a beast of himself, albeit often a very ludicrous one. . . . But shall we reclaim them or stop drinking and gambling by establishing teetotal saloons and reading rooms? We think not.” 

The specific rhetoric deployed throughout the 1880s and 1890s by many settlers marshalled a sense of white masculinity as constituted by moderation and restraint, rendering further restrictions infantilising, humiliating and unnecessary. 

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Likewise, hundreds of petitioners wrote to protest the Natal Legislative Council’s temperance-minded attempts to strengthen the Liquor Laws of 1896. The petitioners angrily alleged: “While the majority of the people of this colony are not what is known as total abstainers, they are temperate and the present Bill is an uncalled for imputation on their character in that its provisions are likely to create an impression in the minds of those who have not the chance of judging for themselves that a very considerable section of the colonists are addicted to excessive drinking and incapable of exercising the self-control which is exercised by the members of all civilized and intelligent communities.” 

Critically, these petitioners make it known that they are not abstainers, they are self-regulating drinkers. In regards to their drinking, they marshalled a sense of victimisation at the wide-ranging proposed changes to Natal’s alcohol laws. They interpreted these broad changes as doubt in their inability to maintain sobriety, which served, in effect, to mark their failure to exercise appropriate control over Natal. Bristling at such language, the petitioners insisted that if excessive drinking did prevail among whites it was only in rare cases and did not “in any way justify the branding of the whole community as drunkards”. 

Although newspapers and legislative debates both indicate that intoxication threatened white settler respectability, ultimately alcohol served as the means of legally defining both nativeness and Indianness. Whiteness was not an a priori condition, but rather was aligned with sobriety through a process that resulted in more detailed racial categories around African and Indian bodies. The rhetoric that linked Africans to wider populations of vulnerable indigenous peoples throughout the Anglophone settler world simultaneously bolstered settler claims to control over both government and spirits. Likewise, the constant debates over alcohol access underscored not only the liminal racial status of Indians within the colony, but also the emergent crises of white settler hegemony that would grip the colony in the first decades of the 20th century. 

Yet, as legal accounts demonstrate, white sobriety (and all that such a condition signified) itself was not automatically or necessarily stabilised even by the law, but had to be perpetually guarded and defended. It is here that the limits of settlement are most apparent in colonial Natal. The inability of settler legislators to deny non-white access to intoxicants pointed simultaneously to their own tenuous hold over constructed hierarchies of difference. How powerful were settlers in Natal if their vaunted control was only one careless glass of brandy away from falling away, revealing them humiliated in the dust, like the hapless Martin Swindells?

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