Ronald Hyam believes that 'sex is at the very heart of racism'. An analysis of attitudes towards race and gender, and the interplay between them of sexuality, bears him out. Although settler communities were diverse and heterogeneous, in the first half of the twentieth century they were increasingly united by a hegemonic ideology. This ideology stressed the racial difference between rulers and ruled as a basis for white authority. As race and gender were such important concepts in maintaining the social hierarchy of colonies, any sexual relations in the colonies except perhaps those between natives were necessarily charged with political and ideological meaning.

The history of racism in the early twentieth century Empires is one of a sharpening of boundaries and an increase in discrimination, particularly social discrimination. Seen in this context, sexual fears are part of a larger picture. This larger picture is one of the white man retreating to his ideological fortresses and stressing the perceived virtues of white bourgeois civilization – tranquil domesticity in the private sphere and a martial, efficient vigour in the public sphere. Crucially, this idyll of a white community was defined in contrast to the image of native communities, which were held to be ignorant and degenerative. Any contact between the two would necessarily leave the white race worse off, and this of course included the most intimate of personal intercourse.

Although there was certainly no golden age in race relations, racism has not always throughout history been the most prevalent discourse in contact between civilizations. The growth of racism can be linked to Europe's industrial and military good fortunes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which made Oriental societies that had once seemed stable seem stagnant. There was still a belief in the potential equality of all races even if it was clear to Europeans that they were much further along the path of development than Orientals, but this too was dispelled violently by colonial nationalism and resistance to European rule. For many Imperial powers, especially Britain, the formative decade was 1857 – 67, which saw the Indian Mutiny and the Jamaican Uprising.

After this European attitudes to natives became increasingly paternalistic and less optimistic about the possibility of bringing all races to the same level of development quickly. The negative aspects of other races began to be stressed above their positives, and the character of the 'noble savage' was recast as an ignorant and depraved individual who was not fit to set foot in civilisation. This shift in the perception of racial differences would clearly have an impact on the earlier sexual habits of the colonialists.

When discussing miscegenation, an individual is never simply 'coloured’ or 'white'; one is a 'coloured woman' or a 'white man'. Attitudes towards gender in white societies meant that when individuals from these societies confronted the Other, they were expected to adhere to different codes of conduct depending on their gender. This was especially true in cases of marriage, as for instance in German law where women and men were treated entirely differently. Differing attitudes towards white men and white women also stem in part from the time they arrived on the colonial scene. White men were initially passively allowed if not actively encouraged to form concubinage arrangements with local woman, while white women who bedded with natives were universally derided as having forsaken their civilisation.

Sexual anxieties on the part of white men surely form part of any explanation for this disparity, especially when the white image of the over-sexed Oriental is taken into account. Having been born and raised in the unhealthy and maddening tropical climate, native men were held to have enormous libidos and to see white women as objects of great desire. Racially incapable of exercising the virtues of chastity and restraint, coloured men's promiscuity was just one component of their supposedly degraded state of being.

As white women only began to arrive in the colonies in large numbers in the early twentieth century, this issue only appeared to have particular salience at this time. Much older was the question of concubinage arrangements and even marriage between white men and native women. This practice was predominant in most British colonies throughout the nineteenth century and actively encouraged in the French. A colonialist taking a native mistress was seen as beneficial for race relations and as a way of helping the colonialists to learn the local language and customs. In an earlier era of less pronounced racism the practice made sense as a way of integrating whites into the local community and allowing them to find sexual release in what was seen as a cost-free arrangement. Critically, it would also allow for the better maintenance of white prestige – if white men took a white wife, they would be unable to maintain them and their family at a European standard of living. A white proletariat in the colonies would undermine the image of the master race and hence lessen its authority.

However, concubinage proved problematic in itself. The first problem was what would be done with the progeny of such unions – would they be classed as 'European'? To what law would they be subject? This proved especially problematic for the Germans, who bestowed citizenship based on descent and not place of birth. Concubinage could hence lead to the creation of a 'race' of 'Europeans of colour' that would legally be able to take jobs in the civil service and to enjoy full equality along with 'pure whites'. Fears such as these are the background to the Crewe Circular of 1907 banning concubinage and the similar Dutch order after World War I.

Especially in the general climate of the hardening of racial lines in the first decades of the twentieth century, it was inconceivable that white blood could be diluted and degenerated by miscegenation. Not only was this held to be bad in social Darwinist terms, because it would gradually lead to the debasement of the white race, but it would also surely undermine authority in the colonies to have power exercised by 'half-castes'. It would not only lessen the quality of rule in the colonies, but also call into question the racial divide itself. The second problem with concubinage was that it could cause friction between white men and natives, especially in areas where there was a shortage of women. It was not becoming of the master race to get into scuffles with natives over women.

Hence, in the first few decades of the twentieth century colonial society was faced with a problem. Concubinage was not an adequate solution to the problem of providing sexual release for white settlers, as it seemed to create more problems than it solved. This happened especially as racial attitudes changed. In the broader context of changes in racial attitudes, concubinage could no longer be tolerated. The racism of the early twentieth century was characterised by the increased desire of the white community to isolate themselves as much as possible from the native people and from the harmful effects of the native environment. Sexual contact with native people obviously fell into the category of personal contact with the natives, and did not fit in with the new image that whites were developing for themselves. Ann Laura Stoler has argued that colonies were 'imagined communities' in which the 'classic foil' of racism was used to create a common sense of being and purpose. As colonial societies felt threatened by colonial nationalism and internal division, she argued that they evoked this foil all the more to seek harmony within and to present a united front to the natives. This shift in attitude coincided with and was abetted by another crucial factor – the arrival in the colonies of large numbers of white women.

Although the arrival in the colonies of white women has been blamed for sharpening racial divisions, this explanation is far too monocausal. However, to deny they had any impact at all is likewise surely too extreme a position. White women came to the colonies to take their place in a hierarchical and ideological society which had a special place for them – as mothers and wives in domestic private space. The practice of the bourgeois way of life deep in the tropics was supposed to demonstrate the special vitality of white civilisation, in contradistinction to the native way of life. Even though the maintenance of this lifestyle relied on the presence of large numbers of coloured servants, they were taught to remain invisible. Because of the specific gender roles ascribed to men and women within this 'ideal' way of life, increased surveillance of both genders to make sure they conformed ensued. Conformity involved a particular attitude towards sexual relations with natives, it been discouraged for both genders.

Taking a concubine came to be seen as having a degenerative influence on white people, especially given the association of venereal disease with natives. 'Environmentalism', the belief that people’s innate characteristics were shaped by their environment and that acquired traits could be passed on genetically, discouraged spending too long in the tropics at all, never mind consorting with women born and raised there. As for white women, there was much fear of the 'Black Peril' and of sexual assault on white women. This in itself required a greater cultural distance to be established to make white women inaccessible.

At the heart of the whole issue of race and sex were questions of privilege and power. The condoning of sexual relations between races was as much about maintaining the white position of power as their condemnation was, but as perceptions of race changed the need for sexual control increased. White communities changed and they also changed the native societies in which they existed, and it was this change in the conditions of power and privilege that led to a redrawing of the sexual rules of engagement. As white communities reached a sort of maturity they were faced with new problems but also could access new solutions. For instance, in Deli and elsewhere the ban on marriage by whites could be lifted when economic conditions were stable enough to mean that white families would not be impoverished. This led to the adoption of a 'family formation' strategy which was seen as a solution to a problem that had developed over time – namely, the coming of age of the offspring of earlier inter-racial unions and the legal questions associated with this. As the experience of 'Germans of colour' shows, although the government was sometimes willing to accept their legal equality, they often had difficulty exercising their civic rights; they were seen as undesirable. They could not be allowed access to the privilege and power which went with white skin, for this would undermine and debase the concept of white rule, as well as the white race with it.

Not only was the racial boundary being redrawn to try and legitimise the rule of whites, it was being redrawn to legitimise the rule of a certain type of white – the elite. The elite used its own ideology to try and legitimise white rule in the face of resistance, and it could draw on the science of eugenics to do so. Eugenics and social Darwinism had the added advantage of justifying the power of the whites seen as exercising the most bourgeois virtues, as compared to those seen as 'degenerative'. To be the most virtuous representative of bourgeois white civilisation involved not intermingling with 'lesser' races and certainly not interbreeding. This modernisation of colonial authority was a necessarily racist one because of the concepts it prescribed about what it meant to be 'white' or 'coloured', and because the former defined itself in contrast to the latter.

And although the history of racism is about more than sex, the history of sex in the colonies can only be explained in terms of changing racial ideology because racial ideology is so all-encompassing in its tenets. Sex between whites within marriage was an ideological action because it served to reproduce the white race and perpetuate the bourgeois household and way of life, and sex between races was an ideological action because it meant interaction between the races. As a subject on which passions run high, sexual relations in the Empires could not help but be seen in racial terms – especially as race came to have even more importance attached to it as a source of identity.

Complete bibliography

Ann Laura Stoler, 'Rethinking colonial categories: European communities and the boundaries of rule' in Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1989
Ann Laura Stoler, ‘Making empire respectable: the politics of race and sexual morality in the 20th century colonial cultures’ in American Ethnologist, 1989
Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality
Rosalind O'Hanlon, 'Gender in the British Empire' in Judith M. Brown and W.M. Roger (eds), The Oxford History of the British Empire vol. 4: the Twentieth Century
Ellizabeth Collingham, Imperial Bodies: the Physical Experience of the Raj, c. 1800 – 1947
Megan Vaughan, Curing their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness
Dane Kennedy, 'The perils of the mid-day sun: climatic anxieties in the colonial tropics' in John Mackenzie (ed) Imperialism and the Natural World
Lora Wildenthal, 'Race, gender and citizenship in the German colonial empire' in Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World

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