More on Moral Panic

Thinking again about moral panic this morning while reading through a memoir of a Rhodesian woman, Sally in Rhodesia. In current work, I’m trying to argue that the British Empire in Africa was a messier, more complicated, more mutualistic phenomenon than some of the historiography might have it, but in pursuit of a modest revisionism, you can’t allow yourself to forget just how blazingly overt and crude the racial ideology of imperialism was for most of its existence, and how much it conditioned all sorts of behavior, including what could properly be called “moral panic”.

One thing to keep in mind about the following passage: the “boys” referred to by the author, Sheila MacDonald, are adult men who have real names but whom she and her husband call Whisky and Sixpence instead. This is from shortly after her arrival in Rhodesia in 1907, and is written retrospectively.

Sheila MacDonald, Sally in Rhodesia. (Bulawayo: Books of Rhodesia), 1970.

“After the dish washing was over I went off to my bedroom, and very soon was disturbed by a gentle knocking at the door. On opening it, I found to my horror both domestics standing outside smiling cheerfully and chattering gibberish. They only wanted to come in and tidy up the room, but every story I had heard in Durban of Black Peril flashed into my mind and panic-stricken I slammed the door, locked it and then fled, or rather crawled, for protection under my bed and cried for my mother. There I remained all morning. Poor Toby! No wife so smiling and happy at one o’clock, no lunch, nothing but two grinning boys explaining that the Missus was in her room ‘Maningi sick’ (very ill). However, now I no longer fear my staff, and great is the consternation in the kitchen over the extraordinary ideas of the new Missus. Nevertheless Sixpence has learnt to lay and clear away a table, and Whisky when my eye is on him washes the dishes in clean water, and with many protests also washes his kitchen cloths every morning if I don’t forget to remind him.

So much about my servants, whose photographs I enclose with this. They are Portuguese natives so wear ‘limbo’ instead of trousers. The shirts are white, and the limbo scarlet, blue and white, so they really look very nice and smart and outwardly clean. When the time comes for me to engage new domestics, Toby says I must make them wash their heads in paraffin before they come into the house!” pp. 10-12.

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