Regarding Race, Nation, and Our Future

Written Work by Graham T. Baden

“Our White Fathers:” Patriarchy and Shifting Gender Roles in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1961

our white fathers title page

“Our White Fathers:”

Patriarchy and Shifting Gender Roles

in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1961

            The twentieth-century immigration of European colonizers to Nigeria required the maintenance of a carefully constructed imperialist ideology. To remain viable within a land where white colonial immigrants suppressed the needs and wants of native Nigerians—the overwhelming majority— this ideology was dependent on a unilateral acceptance of racist, sexist, and patriarchal practices. The European colonialist philosophy, imported by the colonizers to Nigeria and impressed upon its people with brutal force, had significant effects on three populations within colonial Nigerian borders. Although Nigerian men and women had unique and sophisticated gender norms before the colonial era, they were undeniably affected by the importation of British imperial ideals. Nevertheless, Nigerian gender norms are not alone in their collision with colonialism, though, because the European women who arrived during the colonial era experienced the constraints of white patriarchy alongside them.

Colonialism, constructed upon the metaphors of paternalism and “white man’s burden,” affected the entire empire, both those communities within Nigeria and those who remained in England. Outside the gaze of metropolitan London, though, Nigerian societies experienced imperialism first hand. The black men and women who called Nigeria home, and the white women who accompanied the colonizing force, all learned to exist within the definitions determined by their white fathers and the imperial structures of colonial patriarchy. This paper outlines the shifts of Nigerian gender roles and identities during the colonial era and compares them to the shifts of British gender norms during the same place and time. Three specific communities, those of Nigerian men, Nigerian women, and British women will be individually outlined and their relationship to the structures of gender and colonialism explored. Through this, we will find they share many similarities, both in their agency despite the limitations of patriarchy and in their dissimilarity to the common narrative of colonial gender roles.

Colonizing Nigeria

            Before the abolition of Atlantic slave trade, and before Europe required fuel to fire the engine of the Industrial Revolution, Europeans had only a brief relationship with the African communities who lived at the mouth of the Niger Delta. The Yoruba and Igbo kingdoms, the powers controlling the West and East banks of the Niger River respectively, allowed the founding of European trading ports along the coast as early as the sixteenth century. They traded with the Spanish, Portuguese, and many other European states and private companies along the coast for goods manufactured in Europe. They also traded extensively with the Sokoto Caliphate to their north for supplies that came across the Sahara from as far away as the Mediterranean. They traded raw materials— especially human cargoes— and their lands flourished in result.

After Britain declared the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, however, and the economic shift to what the British deemed “legitimate,” the Yoruba and Igbo turned to the trade of palm oil, a valuable resource used in the lubrication of the new machines of the industrial revolution. The “legitimate trade” of palm oil, unlike the lucrative sale of slaves, was not enough to support the growing kingdoms, and their trade systems collapsed shortly thereafter. Britain, in turn, began to invade the Niger region, and though they met stiff resistance in some cases, especially from the Asante peoples, they eventually established an effective occupation and a virtual monopoly of trade within the Niger Delta by the mid-1880s.[1]

European imperialism, and especially British competition with France over access to new land and resources, led to an influx of European immigration to Nigeria. Through this cultural contact, Nigerian gender roles and identities were undeniably influenced by the economic systems and ideologies that European colonizers brought with them. This British incursion, though it is common in our modern perception of European imperialism in Africa and the Americas, should not be seen as a “conquest,” but more as deluge. Through a flood of treaties and “pacts of friendship” with the kingdoms and principalities of the Niger Delta, the British came to overwhelm the region with new forms of economy, products to buy and sell, new methods of governance, cultural habits, and a new religion. It is important to remember, though, that the people of Nigeria saw as many opportunities through the new methods brought to their shores as the British saw that was worth taking from them.[2] Through their encounter with Europeans, Nigerians both fashioned themselves and shaped the nature of colonialism in West Africa.

Part of what allowed for Britain’s great success in West Africa was their unique style of colonial government. The British system of indirect rule, a means of maintaining political authority through the auspices of local, indigenous chiefs and existing structures of power, allowed for an almost seamless shift from a native to colonial center of control. The Native Courts Proclamation No. 9 of 1900 authorized colonial officials to designate “Native Administrations” within British colonies. However, these were often made without regard to established Nigerian models—models that relied upon both male and female structures of governing authority.[3] By offering perquisites and incentives to local leaders, some of whom had been in power before colonial times and others created seemingly on a whim, the British established an intimate, yet distanced, partnership between the governed and the governing that benefited the authorities on both sides. Lord Lugard, a British mercenary and explorer, born in India in 1858, finally subdued any remaining resistance in Nigeria by the northern Hausa and Fulani peoples in the first years of the 1900s. He was ultimately placed as the Governor-general of Nigeria when the North- and South-Nigerian Protectorates were joined in 1914, during the fallout after the First World War, and placed significant political power within the reach of “native authorities,” the emirs in the North and the eze or obi in the South.[4]

This system of rule-by-proxy established a regimented and singular chain of political rule that included Nigerian kings and chieftains in a hierarchy that led directly to the British Crown. Nigerian authorities’ power was cemented in local regions, and the British adopted a mutually beneficial arrangement of non-interference. Further, rather than the uncomfortable philosophy of “assimilation” adopted by the French, whereby the flawed and backwards peoples of Africa could be saved and assimilated into the French world by the adoption of European language, religion, and way of life, the British merely “associated” with African society, instituting a cheap and effective system of indirect rule.[5] The “Dual Mandate,” as Lugard named it, was to develop “the abounding wealth of the tropical regions of the earth,” and “to safeguard the material rights of the natives… to promote their material and moral progress.”[6] The very duality of this policy, as suggested by the name, is almost palpable. The British truly believed that the expression of this policy would be “neither exploitation in the selfish interest of the conqueror, nor a pure humanitarian civilizing mission, but a kind of symbiosis for the benefit of both.”[7]

To establish and maintain the legitimacy of this extensive British experiment in global, imperial domination, and to manage and differentiate national identities at home and abroad, a deep-seated and elaborate myth was constructed. The “metaphor of paternalism,” instilled in British youth alongside the ideals of patriotism and imperial citizenship from primary school onward, became central to the European narrative of empire.[8] This concept, formulated in support of white men’s authority over vast numbers of colonial subjects, supposed metropolitan Britain to be the “fathers” who would bring light, faith, and civilization to the lawless and unsophisticated brown-skinned children across the globe. It, using the common European nuclear family as a model, suggested that the British paterfamilias’s only goal through imperialism was not the political domination and economic exploitation of the localities, but the importation of civilization and modernization for the betterment of the “dark races.”

This metaphor of the family, used as a model for the establishment of the British Empire, sees its primary, almost spiritual, purpose outlined in Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” a poem beseeching the United States to extend its imperial reach to the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century. “Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed,” Kipling pleads, in a poem rife with similes to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and abounding with allusions to cleansing and eugenics.[9] There was even a series of Pear’s Soap advertisements run during the 1890s that encouraged the use of cleanliness to lighten the load of the white man’s burden. “A potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances,” one ad states, “it is the ideal toilet soap.”[10] Durba Ghosh, in “Gender and Colonialism,” further realizes that this importation of European gender and domestic ideals “gave rise to an obsessive concern with soap and cleanliness, creating desires among colonized subjects for cultural and racial whiteness through the consumption of European products.”[11] As the British crept ashore, these imperialistic metaphors of cleanliness and paternalism collided with Nigerian ideas of gender, and Igbo and Yoruba people began to construct novel attitudes in relation to the new imports.

kipling plate

Before this political, social, and domestic ideology arrived, women possessed a tremendous amount of power within pre-colonial Nigerian societies, expressing authority over their own lives and the lives of others, both men and women. Women of the Yoruba and Igbo, especially due their societies’ culturally unique gender-division of labor, played an important role in the production and distribution of the economy. The gendered public/private binary, then, common to post-modern, western women’s analyses, does not hold water in a West African framework.[12] Like the Igbo, Yoruba women’s work in the market, and their participation in political structures, indicates a far different gender norm than was typical of women in Europe at the same time.[13] They operated and expressed authority both in private and in public. In pre-colonial Nigeria, women’s societies and organizations in both Igbo and Yoruba lands acted as a check-and-balance system for the male structures of authority. They were both parallel and complimentary.

The importation of normative British domestic values to Nigeria established a rigid racial and gender hierarchy, though. This hierarchy, placing everything to do with whiteness at its apex and the mere mention of femaleness at the bottom, has led many scholars to suggest that black, female colonial subjects were “doubly colonized,” by both their race and their gender.[14] This concept, pervasive throughout the Western narrative, finds voice in the repeated use of the colonized woman as “victim” and someone who was in need of being saved, both in academic text and in film. As such, alongside the ideology of the “white father,” the white, maternal figurehead came to the colonies to ballast the colonial position with ideas of love, charity, and protective sympathy.  American author Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book Mother India and the 1957 film of the same name, for example, caused a heated backlash within South Asia, but informed Western consciousness of the colonies’ need for Western maternalism.[15] From the beginning, the British were fully aware of the need for women within the colonies. As Britain began sending nurses to the Nigerian colony, Sir George Taubman-Goldie praised their efforts. Citing Kipling, he claimed it was “the white woman’s burden.”[16]

Un-colonizing Nigeria

            Despite their time under colonial authority, the people of Nigeria found many ways to express their national, rather than ethnic, solidarity and their desire for self-governance. The growing commercial and professional elite, educated by British schooling and trained through participation in the structures of colonial administration, began to assert “supra-tribal” and pan-African desires for independence from external authority. The Nigerian colonial government, especially in response to growing Nigerian nationalism after the Second World War, slowly began to change, and British policies in West Africa shifted to accept the realization of an African political consciousness.

These shifts in political leadership, though a positive change for the future of Nigeria, followed a gender-biased British model and elected only men to positions of authority. In response to this erosion of women’s power, Nigerian women turned increasingly to political activity, staging boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, and the like. The push for Nigerian self-governance was paralleled by the “Women’s Wars” of the 1920s—1950s which, indeed, was responsible for much of the growth of Nigerian national consciousness. The 1925 Nwaobiala Movement, 1929 Water Rate Demonstrations, the 1929 “Women’s War,” 1930 Anti-Tax Demonstrations, and the Pioneer Oil Mill Demonstrations of the 1940s—1950s, to name only a few, added to the surge in nationalistic pride and solidarity within urban and rural Nigeria.[17] The Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU), formed in 1949 under the leadership of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuit, known by many men and women in Nigeria as the “Mother of Africa,” was extremely influential in mobilizing women to gather behind the national cause. The National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), for example, led by Nnamdi Azikiwe, grew in political popularity and captured several seats in the National Congress of Nigeria in the years leading up to independence. In its drive towards gaining political authority as a party, with Azikiwe ultimately being elected Governor-General and then President of Nigeria in 1961, the NCNC relied heavily on the support of Nigerian women’s groups like the NWU and supported their calls for universal adult enfranchisement during the 1950s.[18]

In his inaugural address, Azikiwe spoke against the racism that had occurred during colonialism, and warned against the process repeating, stating, “a minority, on account of its superior organization and influence, can usurp power.”[19] He even goes on to praise a young female student, celebrating the “spirit of inquiry” of the youth and their desire to educate themselves.[20] However, Azikiwe’s pluralistic ethos did not last long. Though Nigeria moved from external rule and towards self-governance, becoming officially an independent republic in 1961, the parties and political actors who came to power belonged to a narrow section of the Nigerian tribal and ethnic identity. The NCNC was an Igbo- and Christian-dominated organization whose supporters belonged to a predominantly urban, eastern region of Nigeria.[21] Thus, the Yoruba of the West and the Hausa of the North were poorly represented by the state, and this lack of popular sovereignty within the bicameral government led to a series of ethnically-chauvinistic civil wars and military coups. The military regimes that flooded the nation for the following twenty years after independence, constructed of the same patriarchal tendencies of the previous colonial authorities, reduced women’s access to public participation and political agency. Though women had been chief mobilizing agents in the nationalistic drive towards independence, they held no seats within the congress they helped to create. Those women who did hold government positions were appointed to their posts rather than elected, thereby removing all credibility in women’s movements, now seen as disingenuous and counterfeit.[22]

nigerian genders plate

Gender and Colonialism

            Beginning in the 1980s, as the West came to understand its role in the development, and underdevelopment, of the global south, there was a surge of interest in the study of empire. During this reanalysis of colonialism and de-colonialism, and as women’s histories began growing in popularity, gender and colonialism became a primary focus of intellectual attention. “Gender and Colonialism,” a subject of study that has dominated much of the new colonial histories, has gathered enough interest within the social sciences that it enjoys independent conferences, journals, and an altogether singular avenue of historical research. With this expanded interest, though, the study of men and masculinity, specifically that of African men, has gathered little academic enthusiasm in comparison. As well, the histories of white women complicate and confuse the prevailing narrative of race and gender relations within the colonial sphere.

Accompanying the increased interest in historicizing gender, African women, and especially their political participation during decolonization, have received a great deal of scholarly attention of late. Gloria Chuku finds there are two prevailing ideas within the historical corpus of works on African women. One, Chuku states, is that women had extensive power before colonialism. The other, she suggests, is that women were marginalized after independence due to the lingering patriar chal forces of colonialism. While this does seem to ring true, for the history of women in Nigeria, Chuku feels the reality is somewhere between those two paradigms.[23] Within Igbo and Yoruba societies at least, women were committed to a culturally important political structure that was parallel and complimentary to that of men. After independence, unfortunately, that structure seems to have evaporated. This story seems to have eluded most depictions of West African society, though.

The narrative of colonialist, and even anti-colonialist, film, literature, and academia has placed African women consistently in a place of either overt sexuality or victimization. Whenever “Mother Africa” is not in need of saving from the domination of the white man, she is sexualized and exoticized. One need only look through the posters of Western films such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan or John Huston’s the African Queen to see naked African bodies writhing to the beat of a tribal drum. Even in post-modern films, where one might balk at the idea of seeing full-frontal female nudity in a mixed audience, it seems altogether appropriate to show black breasts in films rated suitable for teens and shown in high school classrooms. Black and brown women’s bodies continuously play the part of the mistress, the vamp, or the harlot throughout orientalist literature and film, whether it be through the sexual exploitation of a colonial official or the lucky glimpse into the luxury of the harem. Even further, nearly every image of black female bodies from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries depicts a woman with an exaggerated derriere under the unhidden gaze of white males.

narrative of african women

While this trope is ubiquitous to twentieth-century Western literature, cinema, and academia, Nigerian women, at least, do not appear to have followed the stereotype. For example, as is noted above, Nigerian women played an important role in public society. Igbo and Yoruba women were an integral part in the political participation before colonialism, resistance during decolonization, and the development of Nigerian national identity. Not only do Nigerian women not follow this dominant narrative of gendered colonialism, they were important agents before, during, and after the British came to their shores. The British colonizing forces were met with peculiar gender relations upon their arrival in South Nigeria.[24] Unlike the normative gender construct common in Europe, one where men belonged in the public sphere, labored in the market, and tended to political affairs, and women, the mother figures, were isolated to domesticity and maternity in the private sphere, Nigerian men and women interacted and shared responsibilities within both public and private life. In many cases even, women were in positions of supreme authority and expressed power over the spiritual, social, and political affairs of the village.

In fact, apart from simply being culturally different from the European dual-sex binary, the Igbo language itself does not afford itself to gender duality.[25] It seems appropriate, then, that Igbo society would find no fault in a woman participating in generally all-male political structures or even taking several wives and husbands, as was the case in certain political and economic circumstances.[26] Igbo society relied heavily on female structures of power for matters as disparate as spiritual direction and the maintenance of prices within the marketplace. The Isa Ada, “Mother of Lineage,” was the senior-most female official within a kin-group of a village. She resided over affairs of women within lineage meetings and performed mystical functions as the venerator of all female Igbo deities, of which there were many. The Omu, or “Mother of Society,” was the most senior of the Isa Ada, was elected to her position, derived her power from merit, not from kinship, and presided over female affairs within the village councils. She was in charge of matters of the economy, often acting with her fellow Isa Ada as a pressure group in political matters, and “reserved the right to impose fines on men and women who disturbed the peace of the marketplace,” Chuku states.[27] The Nigerian women who rose to political or religious authority often acquired considerable wealth and power. They often exercised control over the labor of others, bought and sold land, and some owned their own slaves.[28] Especially in trading centers along the coasts, some women even organized into effective trading organizations and cartels, becoming important allies to the women’s organizations of the 50s during the struggle for Nigerian independence.[29] Igbo social and political hierarchy was built upon a merit-based system of wealth, lineage, marital status, and charisma, rather than one based on race or gender.

Though the gender relations in South-Nigeria were unique, and their constructions were modified through the interaction with colonialism, the Empire was a fluid unit and cannot be simply analyzed through a regional lens. As Ann Stoler has shown in her Race and the Education of Desire, the state structures of home, school, and the court enforced normative British boundaries essential to imperial rule and authority, just as Anne McClintock and Elizabeth Collingham have suggested that colonial societies became conscious of race and class in response to colonizers’ anxieties of miscegenation.[30] The British Empire developed its ideas of gender, masculinity, and identity through the very process of imperialism, and as Kathleen Wilson has shown eloquently in The Island Race, gendered identities were formed and consolidated in England as the Empire came into contact with the diverse populations around the world. “Gender, race, class, and sexuality,” Ghosh states, “were central to creating and managing imperial structures and maintaining national identities.”[31] The periphery and the metropole were intimately linked, it seems. The Empire defined both the state and the colony.

One field-defining effort, Ruth Roach Pierson and Nupur Chaudhuri’s Nation, Empire, Colony: Historicizing Gender and Race is a collection of articles that brings the concepts of colony and nation into one conceptual framework. Through this influential work, they show how gender, identity, and state formation are inextricably linked and form in relation to each other, not only in the peripheries, but in the metropole itself. Another example of this, Antoinette Burton’s analysis of women in the metropole in Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915, takes this idea further and suggests that feminist women within Britain expressed active and knowledgeable action regarding imperial activities as a way of showing their worth as citizens of the nation and their readiness for the vote. It seems, though, throughout these authoritative works, that the study of gender is in “restoring women to…histories of the construction of nation, empire, and colony.” Why, when even the editors of Race, Empire, Colony state their intention, to make visible a “plurality of genders,” is there so little attention paid to any gender but female?[32]

feminine power

Linking Men to Gender and Colonialism

            One work that seeks to upend the partial analysis of gender is African Masculinities: Men in Africa from the Late 19th Century to the Present, published in 2005 and edited by Lahoucine Ouzgane and Robert Morrell. This collection of articles searches the histories of politics, science, even film, and it spans throughout colonial and post-independence Africa. The volume seeks not only to employ a better understanding of gender theories within an African context, but to dispel the conception that African gender ideals can be “laboratories for the application of existing gender theory,” especially that of Western Feminism, they suggest.[33] Equally, through representing alternative forms of masculinity, the editors aim to offer “alternative, egalitarian/peaceful visions of masculinity,” rather than the prevailing narrative of misogyny and androcentrism.[34]

However, this is not a new topic of study, African masculinity has been the subject of analysis since the mid-twentieth century.[35] Frantz Fanon explored the idea of paternalism within colonial contexts extensively. He used a Hegelian, dialectical reading of the Father/Son, White/Black, Master/Slave relationship to relate this to the Oedipus complex, a common psychological neurosis denoting an unresolved father/son relationship and a desire for sexual relations with the mother. Fanon suggests, however, because non-European gender roles and matrilineage was common within pre-colonial Africa, this is not an African complex, but an European one. Because the colonized subject was dehumanized by the process of colonialism, and thus objectified as a part of a commercial process, he was “emasculated” or “feminized” in relation to the patriarchal structure of colonial authority. To borrow Tamara Hunt’s term, the “colonial gaze” of the colonizers towards black male and female bodies turned them into objects of sexual and material gratification.[36] And because colonized subjects lived within a reality constructed by racism and paternalism, their very psyches were built within its framework, he stated. Therefore, through this “cognitive dissonance,” colonized people could simultaneously accept two conflicting ideas—they could both hate themselves and love their enemies. He outlined what he called the master/slave colonial binary, where black colonized subjects were not only dehumanized by the removal of African culture, but by their own erasure of themselves through an attempt to become white. In a rereading of Fanon’s denial of the Oedipus complex within colonized male mentalities, though, could we not read that the colonized wished to kill their white father as Oedipus did? When read in the context of his other work, we have a better understanding. Fanon specifically advocated violence in order to become new, independent men in his chapter called “On Violence” in The Wretched of the Earth.[37] Does not Fanon himself state that black men lusted after white women (his mother) so that he could be loved like a white man? Did the colonized not also want to become like them, the patriarchal masters of their own land?

Even Albert Memmi, another anti-colonial writer, acknowledged this feminization of African men in The Colonizer and the Colonized.[38] Both Fanon and Memmi use a broad stroke to define the “feminine” as a symbol for disempowerment and dependence on patriarchy. How can we read this, though, while considering the role of women in Nigeria during decolonization? Where the Igbo and Yoruba women who participated in the Women’s Wars disempowered? The time and place of these works should be considered in their reading, and their language should be accepted as normative for intellectual writers of the time. Both are written as a manifesto for the colonized to become aware of their place in the colonial world, but also for a larger audience, one populated by educated philosophers and academics. “There are too many idiots in this world,” Fanon stated in his introduction to Black Skin, White Masks, “and having said this, I have the burden of proving it.”[39] Does he write to the oppressors or to the oppressed? Or perhaps, by this, Fanon meant to critique both the colonizers and the colonized for their participation in the patriarchal binary.

In African Masculinities, one article in particular breaks down the construction of black sexuality, to which Fanon and Memmi refer, through its analysis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical texts. “A Grammar of Black Masculinity: A Body of Science,” by Arthur F. Saint-Aubin, outlines the methods and means by which European science conceptualized and codified black bodies during the years preceding Europe’s imperialist endeavor. This intellectual pursuit, rather than being in the interests of scientific progress, Saint-Aubin suggests, was to establish a detailed vocabulary of racial difference. That vocabulary defined African men’s stature and physical stamina as well-suited for heavy, outdoor labor, suggesting they would be happy to work in plantations or in mines. It described their skull size and facial features as childlike and underdeveloped, but their sexual anatomy as overdeveloped. It suggested black, male bodies were more easily subjugated because of their simpler minds, were more compelled by sexual gratification, and were incapable of governing themselves as a modern society. All of these aspects they attributed to the fact that black bodies were closer to animal than man, and through a European acceptance of this construct, science could establish black mental and sexual inferiority as an objective reality that justified the power structures required to maintain colonial stability.[40]

narrative of black men

Is this narrative consistent with the history of men within colonial Nigeria, though? Lisa Lindsay, in her influential work regarding the shifting gender relations in colonial Nigeria, finds that the structures of colonial authority and power induced dramatic changes in Nigerian ideas of masculinity and the formation of the domestic sphere. In her 1998 article “’No Need… to Think of Home’? Masculinity and Domestic Life on the Nigerian Railway, c. 1940—1961” and her 1999, award winning article “Domesticity and Difference: Male Breadwinners, Working Women, and Colonial Citizenship in the 1945 Nigerian General Strike,” Lindsay explores the formation of Nigerian masculinity, the “male breadwinner” ethic, and the growth of Nigerian nationalism.[41] In her work, she finds that the dramatic changes to industry during the first post-war decades and the social construction of masculinity in Nigeria are intimately related, suggesting that masculinity was formed in the workplace, at home, and in the “interactions between the two.”[42]

South-Nigerian cultures played an important part in this dialectic between modern industrialization and the exceptionalities of Nigerian culture. One important example, Lindsay finds, is that there is no coming of age ritual in Yoruba and Igbo societies as there are in many other places in Africa. Thus, the only true identifier of a “man” is his first marriage and the establishment of his own home. However, within the Yoruba and Igbo, men are expected pay a brideprice to the family of the intended wife. This brideprice became increasingly difficult to acquire, though, as the colonial government expected greater taxes and family farms turned steadily into large-scale monocrop plantations. While it was customary for young men to request the brideprice from their fathers, Lindsay finds it became difficult to obtain during the 40s and 50s because, rather than a lack of funds, as they claimed, fathers hoped to retain their sons’ labor-force to work their farms, now of extended acreage.[43]

This key development dramatically influenced domestic changes in the years that led up to Nigerian independence. In order to obtain a brideprice, South-Nigerian men turned swiftly to migrant labor, now a booming sector of the Nigerian economy. In 1930, only ten percent of Nigerian men were permanently employed as wage earners. By 1950, however, that rate had increased to fifty percent.[44] In response, Nigerian family structure began to change from the traditional to a “modern,” European nuclear format. Where before, families were large, having many wives and children to perform labor in the farm and to sell in the market. Rapidly, Lidsay finds, they shifted to smaller, monogamous units reminiscent of British ones. Because of men’s increased access to cash, women were relieved of the need to work in the public sphere, giving them increased labor flexibility and the opportunity to perform other domestic duties. With more time to devote to their home, women became less likely to have as many children, customarily an essential aid with domestic duties in precolonial Nigeria.[45]

As the Nigerian gender construct progressively changed to see men as the “provider” for the family, the concept of a “Big Man” shifted abruptly away from tradition to “modernity.” Where in the past, a Big Man’s power was formed by kinship and his relationship to the village, in the post-war period, power shifted towards the maintenance of networks of influence within the “formal structures introduced by the colonial regime.”[46] In her interviews with surviving railway workers from this era, Lindsay finds that men saw themselves as modernizers. Railway men and other highly-paid wage earners achieved a high status within the changing Nigerian society of the 50s. They staged strikes, advocating for equal pay to white workers, they requested allowances and perquisites for family obligations, and some even hired servants who did cooking and cleaning for them, things unbecoming of a “man” in Yoruba and Igbo societies.[47]

Where Nigerian women had played an important, even dominant role in the urban movements of the 1920s—40s, in 1945, men took the lead in advocating for racial equality in politics and the workplace. Where Nigerian women had performed important roles both in the domestic sphere and in public space, politically and the economically, in the final decade before independence, Nigerian men and women’s gender roles shifted to a structure similar to the European public/private binary. This paternalist, male-breadwinner ethos informed much of the nationalistic ideology of the 50s, and women’s power in public, economic, and political space faded from the importance it had played before the wars.

masculinity cemented

Linking White Women to the Frame

            To further complicate the already confusing gender relations within Nigeria, white women’s contribution to the Nigerian colonial society challenges the popular narrative of their place within the Empire.[48] In much of the popular colonial and post-colonial discourse, European women played merely supportive, domestic roles—separate from the colonial world and sequestered in the homes of colonial officers—in white enclaves, safe behind walls and separate from the savagery of the natives. We see these stereotypes exemplified in Kurtz’s waifish and inconsequential fiancée—the “Intended”—in Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness or in the libidinous and conspiratorial “Madame” in Oyono’s 1956 novel Houseboy.[49] Neither woman is given an independent name outside one that is attached to her colonial partner, and both act merely as plot devices with which to confound the protagonist. Oyono’s “Madame” is echoed in Claire Denis’s Chacolat, a 1984 film about colonial Cameroon, through the desires of the colonial Aimée Dalens for her black house-servant.[50] In 1985, Sir David Lean, director of the movie epics The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago, as well as many others, stated “it is a well-known saying that the women lost us the Empire.”[51] Though it is pervasive, this narrative extends beyond literature and movies and into the very historiography of empire and its falling.[52] In histories and memoirs of the colonial era, women are often cited as a cause for the worsening of race relations, a key symbol of colonial exploitation, “or at least a widening of social distance between the rulers and the subject peoples,” Helen Callaway states in Gender, Culture, and Empire, a study of British women in colonial Nigeria.[53]

narrative of white women

The preservation of this colonial separation, spurred clearly by white men’s pervasive fear of miscegenation and their projections of sexual fear onto their colonial partners, is pervasive. It seems, to the patriarchs of the dominant society, white women’s sexuality stood as a symbol for the body of the ruling group, and any possibility of penetration from an outsider, an “other,” posed a threat to their identity. The same is not the case in text written by women, though. Based on European women’s actual voices, found in memoirs and travel journals written during the era, white women do not fit the model of the dominant narrative. The communities of European women within Nigeria, rather than being spatially confined to colonial enclaves, travelled widely within Nigeria and participated in Nigerian public life without fear of the “natives.” It appears they were more concerned with bad roads and sudden tropical storms than with abduction or sexual violence. In fact, the only hint of sexual violence Callaway finds mentioned in European women’s writing is not from black men but from white men. Dr. Greta Jellicoe, a medical missionary who journeyed to Nigeria in the 1920s, was confronted by a “drunken British army man” who tried to force his way into her compartment while she was traveling on a train. “Candidly,” she wrote in a letter to her female colleagues at home, “I’m scared of drunken white men.”[54]

European women, Callaway states, despite their “negligible place within the memoirs of male officers” and in the colonial records themselves, despite the negative stereotypes about them in popular novels, movies, and oral histories, and even despite their “problematic position in successive accounts by social scientists,” had a very different relationship to Nigeria than one might expect.[55] Through an extensive rereading of archival colonial records and European men and women’s travel journals and memoirs, Callaway finds that women were essential to the maintenance of colonial Nigerian political and social structures. It seems they were integral to the health and wellbeing of the Nigerian colony, especially through their roles in hospitals and schools.

After 1896, when Lady Francis Piggot with the help of the Colonial Nursing Association encouraged the enlistment of trained Nurses from England, scores of women were recruited from Britain to serve in the Nigerian colony.[56] They served in many varying fields and locales, often in conditions without electricity, ample water, or supplies. They operated their own hospitals, sometimes without the support of a sufficient staff or male management. They were even pivotal in the establishment of several nursing schools and medical universities, where they served as teachers to the growing number of Nigerian health professionals.[57] But while these women served within sometimes trying conditions, their work in hospitals and in nursing schools was “wholeheartedly seen as beneficial by the local populace,” Callaway states.[58] The same cannot be assumed for the women who acted as education officers within colonial Nigeria, though.

The women who taught in mission, primary, and secondary schools in Nigeria were not only subject to the difficulties of operating within established Nigerian gender norms, they were integral to the establishment of British ideologies and the shifting of Nigerian consciousness to that of imperial norms. Depending on the region, these education officers, described as having “rugged determination,” established schools and educated boys and girls often without aid or supplies from the colonial government.[59] They were adored by their students, Callaway finds in letters and testimonials, and many British women often reminisced to the times they spent in West Africa, to the love, generosity, and admiration they were shown from its natives. They brought training to many who would grow up to become important players in the future of independent Nigeria, likely, one imagines, ingraining the very ideologies of imperialism, gender hierarchy, and patriarchy.

essential and influential

It should not be ignored, however, that while these women remained the “inferior gender” of the “master race,” and while for this reason they may have identified with the plight of the “natives,” they still participated as fundamental aspects of cultural imperialism through their work in the passive sphere of hospitals, schools, and administration. While West Africa was described, in many places, as “no place for a white woman”—Mary Elisabeth Oake even titled the 1933 memoirs of her time in Cameroon by that very name—as a place dominated by white men and populated by the dangers of the dark-skinned natives, they were seen by many, and even viewed themselves in many cases, as the maternal force that could protect and counterbalance the forces of patriarchy.[60] “Ma! Ma!” the Nigerian children cried, in a children’s book written in 1917 about Mary Slessor’s time as a missionary in Nigeria and distributed widely throughout the West, “you must not leave us! You are our Mother, and we are your children. God must not take you from us until we are able to walk by ourselves.”[61] Colonial maternalism, it seems, was as much a form of gendered imperialism as paternalism was, and it was integral to the construction of the gendered discourse that differed from the gender fluidity of pre-colonial Nigeria.[62]


            African gender norms, as we have seen, were in many cases far different from the normative European gender binary. Women often worked in the market, controlling prices and holding power within the economy, and regularly participated in the political sphere. This was seen as suspect by Europeans and was used as a justification for Africa’s need of civilization, and thus, imperialism. The political actions and opinions of colonial and post-independence Nigeria were informed and shaped by racial and gendered conceptions of identity, and colonial patriarchy’s part in the construction of this national identity cannot be denied. Our three societies, Nigerian men, Nigerian women, and European women’s gender roles were clearly both altered and defined through their contact with colonialism. White men, acting as the domineering patriarch in both the metropole and the peripheries, not only expressed control over the men and women of the subordinate societies, they reinforced control over the women of their own society.

While Nigerian women had served essential roles in politics and the economy, their power faded in relation to men, and Nigerian women’s participation in decolonization was overlooked. Since the new government was built atop the structures already established by the British government, and this system allowed little space for women, the new independent government of Nigeria saw any forms of women’s power from the pre-colonial era dissolved. After Nigerian independence, women’s movements, and the causes they advocated, were passed over by men’s patriarchal power-grab, but struggled to continue their fight during the 60s and 70s. While African men were emasculated by their repression by colonialist racism and paternalism, it seems within a Nigerian context, unlike the arguments of Fanon in French Africa, they cemented their constructions of masculinity during the colonial era and mimicked British patriarchy in the construction of Nigerian nationalism during the era of neocolonialism.

However, while all of these societies were defined and unquestionably altered by their contact with the space of colonial patriarchy, none of them seem to adhere to the predominant narrative of their place within the colonial world. Black women were not passive observers of paternalism and nationalism or victimized by European colonizers, they were active in public, politics, and the economy before and during decolonization, and they organized women’s movements that affected their status within Nigeria society. Black men were not simply feminized by colonialism, or left without a voice by the forces of white men, instead, they grew in power and ability within politics and the economy during the colonial period. White women were not a leading cause of race problems within Nigeria, or a symbol of colonial exploitation, they were an active and essential part of the functioning of the colonial government. Further, they were not simply bystanders during the expression of paternalism or the construction of altered Nigerian identities, they were active agents of colonialism and participated intimately in the development of imposed European ideologies and gender norms.

Rather than distinguishing these societies as unique and separate from one another by highlighting their differences, perhaps a more inclusive model can be articulated. It is not a common historical approach, though, to portray the harmonies within the colonial sphere and the symmetry of these communities’ relationship to patriarchal authority. Considering the commonalities of these three societies, however, and their shared relationship to white, male authority within the contact zones of colonial space, a more nuanced model of “gender” is required—one that analyzes the intersectionality of their subaltern status and one that is not defined along a similar binary to that of colonialism, the very structure against which we write.

Many many thanks to Dr. Goutong Li for her guidance in constructing this paper

and to Elise Baden for reading, editing, and rereading my proofs.

our white fathers title page

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[1]               Richard J. Reid, A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present (West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 157.

[2]               Ibid., 168.

[3]               Sir John MacDonell and Edward Manson, eds., Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation, vol. VI (London: Hazell, Watson, and Viney, LD, 1906).

[4]               I.F. Nicolson, The Administration of Nigeria, 1900—1960: Men, Methods, and Myths (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 181-215.

[5]               Mary Bull, “Indirect Rule in Northern Nigeria, 1906—1911,” in Essays in Imperial Government (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963).

[6]               Nicolson, 17.

[7]               Ibid.

[8]               See Penelope Hetherington, British Paternalism and Africa, 1920—1940 (Totowa, NJ: Frank Cass & Co Ltd., 1978) and Durba Ghosh, “Gender and Colonialism: Expansion or Marginalization?,” The Historical Journal, 47, no. 3 (2004): 748.

[9]               Rudyard Kipling, “White Man’s Burden,” 1899.

[10]             Pear’s Soap, “Lightening the White Man’s Burden,” advertisement, October 1899, The Cosmopolitan.

[11]             Ghosh, 749.

[12]             Cheryl Johnson-Odim, “Actions Louder than Words: The Historical Task of Defining Consciousness in Colonial West Africa,” in Nation, Empire, Colony (see note 31).

[13]             Cheryl Jeffries-Johnson, “Nigerian Women and British Colonialism: The Yoruba Example with Selected Biographies” (PhD diss., Northwestern University, 1978).

[14]             Tamara L. Hunt and Micheline R. Lessard, eds., Women and the Colonial Gaze (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 11.

[15]             See Kumari Jayawardena, The White Woman’s Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia during British Colonial Rule (New York: Routledge, 1995).

[16]             Helen Callaway, Gender, Culture, and Empire: European Women in Colonial Nigeria (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 83.

[17]             Gloria Chuku, “Igbo Women and Political Participation in Nigeria, 1800s—2005,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 42, no. 1 (2009): 89.

[18]             Ibid., 92.

[19]             Nnamdi Azikiwe, “Respect for Human Dignity,” inaugural address (Enugu, Nigeria: Government Printer, 1961), 10.

[20]             Ibid., 11.

[21]             Audrey Smock, Ibo Politics: The Role of Ethnic Unions in Eastern Nigeria (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 20, 239.

[22]             Chuku, 99.

[23]             In “Igbo Women and Political Participation in Nigeria,” for example, Chuku provides an excellent starting point for the study of black women in Nigeria during British occupation. Her work is expansive, charting the course of women’s participation in politics, both public and private, from the nineteenth century until the present. Chuku frames her study within three periods of colonial rule—pre-colonial, during occupation, and post-independence—and charts Igbo women’s access to participation and agency within the political sphere.

[24]              One study of this, extensive both in its periodization and in its detail, is Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (Avon, United Kingdom: The Bath Press, 1987).

[25]             Amadiume, 89-91.

[26]             See Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands

[27]             Chuku, 83-85.

[28]             Cheryl Johnson-Odim, “Women and Gender in the History of Sub-Saharan Africa,” American Historical Association, Women’s and Gender History in Global Perspective (2007): 29.

[29]             Johnson-Odim, “Actions Louder than Words,” 87.

[30]             see Anne Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995); and E.M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c. 1800-1947 (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2001).

[31]             Ghosh, 747.

[32]             Ruth Roach Pierson and Nupur Chaudhuri, eds. Nation, Empire, Colony: Historicizing Gender and Race (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), 1-3.

[33]             Lahoucine Ouzgane and Robert Morrell, eds. African Masculinities: Men in Africa from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 18.

[34]             Ouzgane and Morrell, 11.

[35]             Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Richard Philcox trans. (New York: Grove Press, 2008). Fanon, a native Martiniquan, born 1925 in a French colony in the West Indies, grew up within a society constructed by racial and gender hierarchies similar to those in Africa. Growing up in this environment, joining the Free French during the Second World War to fight alongside the Allies, studying medicine and further psychiatry in France, and becoming a French intellectual with friends like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, it was obviously troubling for Fanon to still be limited by the constraints of prejudice based solely on the color his skin. In response to this perceived fallacy, Fanon wrote several texts putting the African and colonized mind through the wringer of psychoanalysis within the context of the racist and patriarchal world. His first work, Black Skin, White Masks, actually began as Fanon’s doctoral thesis vis a vis colonial racism while he was still in France.  It is an analysis of identity formation and dissects the French illusion of assimilation that gave colonized subjects the idea that if they received a Western education, spoke perfect French, even married a French woman, they could truly become a citoyen like all the other French citizens.

[36]             Tamara L. Hunt and Micheline R. Lessard, eds., Women and the Colonial Gaze (New York: New York University Press, 2002).

[37]             Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, Inc, 1963).

[38]             Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, Howard Greenfeld trans. (Boston: The Orion Press, Inc., 1965).

[39]             Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, xi.

[40]             See Arthur F. Saint-Aubin “A Grammar of Black Masculinity: A Body of Science,” in African Masculinities (see note 31).

[41]             Lisa Lindsay, “’No Need… to Think of Home’? Masculinity and Domestic Life on the Nigerian Railway, c. 1940-61,” The Journal of African History 39, no. 3 (1998): 439-466.

[42]             Ibid., 445.

[43]             Ibid., 447.

[44]             Ibid., 449.

[45]             Ibid., 451.

[46]             Ibid., 448.

[47]             Ibid., 459.

[48]             See Helen Callaway, Gender, Culture, and Empire.

[49]             Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (London: Blackwood’s Magazine, 1899) and Ferdinand Oyono, Houseboy, John Reed trans. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 2012).

[50]             Chacolat, directed by Claire Denis (1988; Orion Classics, Los Angeles, 1989), VHS.

[51]             “Sayings of the Week,” Observer, February 24, 1985.

[52]             Callaway, 27.

[53]             Ibid., 234.

[54]             Ibid., 236.

[55]             Ibid., 227.

[56]             Ibid., 83.

[57]             Ibid., 107.

[58]             Ibid., 110.

[59]             Ibid., 138.

[60]             Mary Elizabeth Oake, No Place for a White Woman: A Personal Experience (London: Novat Dickson Limited, 1933).

[61]             William Pringle Livingstone, The Story of Mary Slessor for Young People: The White Queen of Okoyong; a True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Faith (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1917), 108.

[62]             See Dolores Janiewski, “Gendered Colonialism and the Woman Question,” in Nation, Empire, Colony (see note 31) or Margaret D. Jacob, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880—1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

6 comments on ““Our White Fathers:” Patriarchy and Shifting Gender Roles in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1961

  1. Kanyinsola Anifowoshe
    March 1, 2017

    Really excellently written and informative! I’d like to cite this thesis, and am wondering what university it was given to and the year it was delivered. Thank yoU!

    • grahamtbaden
      March 1, 2017

      Thank you very kindly. This was presented to Dr. Li and the history department of California State University Long Beach in December 2014.

      Please let me know if I can be of any assistance.

      Warm regards,

  2. kanyinsolaanifowoshe
    March 1, 2017

    Really excellently written and informative thesis! I’d like to cite it in my research, but I would need the name of the university and the year it was delivered. Thank you.

  3. kittykitty
    February 25, 2018

    This is truly great work – thank you for it!

  4. Luke
    April 3, 2020

    Oh my, a truly heady brew of cultural marxist dogma. I can’t see the truth for all the ideology. And I bet your faculty dean absolutely loved it!

    It’s the… the… the…. patriarchy! [excuse me while I chuck]

    • grahamtbaden
      April 3, 2020

      Hi Luke, thanks for the feedback. It’s always nice to hear someone actually differ. I’d love to hear your critique though.

      You know, i wrote this a really long time ago — feels like a lifetime. I haven’t read it in years myself, so perhaps i would feel the similarly, reading it again.


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