On the Nakedness of Africans, part two

by zunguzungu

(part one)

From the dissertation:

When a careerist in British India like Edward Bennet summed up the six months he spent in British East Africa, the obvious points of comparison were countries like India with “its roasting hot weather, smells, and beggars,” or Ireland, where “it always rains.”  Yet his point is not, of course, that British East Africa had any specific qualities in common with these places; his principle of comparison (to the two most historically important British colonies) is the categorical observation that “other countries…have their inconveniences.” For him, therefore, along with the ticks “which you crape off by the spoonful,” the inconvenience that leaves the “most lasting impression” of British East Africa is the “red clay”:

“You meet it everywhere, and it never leaves you; the carriages and waggons of the Uganda Railway are red mud colour with red tarpaulins; the platforms are red mud; fine red sand blows in from the Taru desert, and you assimilate it into your system with the goat chops at the tin eating rooms on the railway; you open your red sandy throat and put a red mud peg down it.”

While the settlement boosters of the day refused to see little or nothing in particular that would render the environment strange or foreign — and on the basis of that not-seeing fantasize that British East Africa was a passive fertility awaiting plantation — Bennet not only emphasizes the land’s resistance to imperial integration but characterizes the East African earth itself as the resistant agent, the “sand” and “clay” and “mud” (but never “soil”) that coats and contaminates the railroad, food, and bodies of its would-be colonizers. The transformation of a goat chop into a red peg forced down the throat is particularly pointed, and while I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, the fantasy of being penetrated by Africa is the perfect inverse of Roosevelt’s narrative dreamscape of settler paternity over a passively fertile land. In place of the virgin soil where white men come to implant their seeds and raise children, Bennet inverts the psycho-sexual intercourse between masculine settler and feminized land to produce, instead, a land which penetrates you, not only denying you sustenance but forcing you to “assimilate it into your system.”

Bennet’s hyperbolic account of the land’s invasiveness is somewhat particular to him, of course. Most contemporaries do not make “red clay” their bottom line in summarizing the country; most travel narratives and sporting memoirs produced about the region either reflect the variety of the land itself or ignore the issue completely. East Africa is a large and climactically varied region, and its earth was and was known to be a quite heterogeneous mix of sandy soils, clay, and the rich intermediate loam prized by farmers.[1] Yet Bennet’s fixation on “red clay” is not simply anomalous: the one place he would have seen red clay would have been on the broad sweep of East African peoples who used it to decorate their bodies. A particular type of red clay mixed with rendered animal fat was often used to dress hair, but it also formed the basis of the monochromatic pigment with which a variety of native peoples in the area covered their otherwise near-naked bodies and which travelers to the region particularly noticed for that reason.

In each of these books, for example, “red clay” is used exclusively to describe bodily decorations:

  • William Scoresby Routledge’s With a Prehistoric People, the Akikuyu of British East Africa (1910) describes how “the appearance of a cord of long hair is obtained” by forming pigtails “anointed with a plentiful amount of red ochreous clay and oil rendered down from the tail of the sheep” (27);
  • Col. John Henry Patterson’s In the Grip of the Nyika: Further Adventures in East Africa (1910): “Both men and women smear their bodies with oil and red clay, and simply put on an extra quantity when they wish to appear particularly smart” (182); and
  • Percy Child Madeira’s Hunting in British East Africa (1909) writes that “it is doubtful if a Kikuyu is ever washed from the day he is born until he dies. The accumulation of castor-oil, red clay, and general filth is not conducive to close affiliation, at least with white people,” and, of the Maasai, “they are covered from head to foot with a mixture of red clay and castor oil, which latter they extract from a native bean that grows wild. This oily paint is poured on top of their hair, which looks not unlike a floor mop tied into cues. The heat of the sun melts this paint, and it drips all over their faces and bodies, keeping them in a perpetual reddish state” (62,142).
  • Edward Bennet’s Shots and Snapshots in British East Africa (1914) also includes this description “As a rule the men did not wear much in the way of clothes, though the women were fully dressed. They do their hair into stringy locks plastered with red mud, and they have their ears pierced for ornaments”(162).

In a very literal sense, then, when Africans were described as naked — and they were often described as naked — the writers were describing bodies which were covered with red clay.

Naked African bodies have always been (and continue to be) an object of fascination for European and American visitors to the continent. Books like Charles Chaillé-Long’s Central Africa: Naked Truths of Naked People put it more bluntly than others, but the theme is almost never absent; “opening up Africa” in broad economic and political terms has always been accompanied with pictures and descriptions of African nakedness.

In one sense, African nakedness could figure the continent’s bodily submission to invasion in sexual termss: the subtext of moments like Conrad‘s Marlow’s “We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness” is only too clear in the writings of people like Henry Morton Stanley (and in phallus-waving great white hunters like Theodore Roosevelt); if Freud wrote that female sexuality was a dark continent, then the reverse tended to be true for explorers and tourists in Africa.

Yet 19th century Europeans also had a very particular set of ideological investments in savage nakedness. For missionaries, establishing nakedness as a signifier of fallenness — rather than a state of edenic purity, for example — was prerequisite to their entire endeavor, such that “clothing the savages” came to serve as a signifier of African conversion. Yet conversion through clothing also dovetailed with the broader economic project of producing the African as a consumer, and of British spun cloth above all; while it was hoped that Africans could become producers of raw cotton for global markets — particularly in West Africa — the empire as a whole buoyed up the English textile industry by providing consumers, such that nakedness signified not only ripeness for conversion but also an opportunity for market penetration.[2] African nakedness, in other words, cannot be disentangled from the manner in which 19th century empire was originally narrativized.

Yet at the same time, describing nakedness was a tricky thing. Bourgeois travelers, after all, were fascinated by the nakedness of savages because it was a novelty: as the public exposure of that which could not be publicly seen or described, an African propensity to be naked in public made African bodies the object of tremendous scrutiny, but it was a scrutiny that could not be transmitted to the polite reading public to whom they sold their books. They were not, after all, anatomists or scientists of that type; while African bodies could be officially cleansed of the suspicion of titillation and freely exposed in laboratories or, eventually, the famously safe nakedness of the National Geographic magazine, when turn of the century travelers in Africa describe African nakedness, they could not — and did not — describe the actual features of the bodies that were startlingly open to their surveillance.

Nakedness, as in Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, is a thing which you know when you see it, but — as that defition demonstrates — which cannot be, itself, described. But what neo-Victorian travelers in Africa could describe was the inadequacy of the clothing or body decoration that Africans did have, such that “red clay” came to be the positive manifestation of a negative nakednes. When Roosevelt writes about a group of “tall, finely shaped savages, their hair plastered with red mud…naked except for a blanket worn, not round the loins, but over the shoulder,” or describes Masai warriors as “naked, or half-naked; some carried gaudy blankets, others girdles of leopard skin; their ox-hide shields were colored in bold patterns, their long-bladed spears quivered and gleamed,” or when Abel Chapman saw, in 1908, “a band of a dozen stalwart ElMoran, or warriors, stark naked but for their spears and a coating of red clay,” it is not difficult to see inadequate blankets and red clay as a means of describing in concrete terms the nakedness which could not be so described (just as the fact that naked Africans always seem to be carrying spears suggests a different mode of describing the indescribable)…


[1] For a sense of how well charted the broad variety of soils were, for example, see Baron Bertram Francis Gurdon Cranworth’s A Colony in the Making; Profit and Sport in British East Africa (1919)

[2] See chapter 5 of Jean and John Comaroff‘s Of Revelation and Revolution (“Fashioning the Colonial Subject: The Empire’s Old Clothes”).