The 'Native' Undefined: Colonial Categories, Anglo-African Status, and the Politics of Kinship in British Central Africa, 1929-1938

Publication Type:

Journal Article


The Journal of African History, Volume 46, p.455–478 (2005)



This article examines the categorical problem that persons of ‘mixed-race’ background presented to British administrations in eastern, central and southern Africa during the late 1920s and 1930s. Tracing a discussion regarding the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ from an obscure court case in Nyasaland (contemporary Malawi) in 1929, to the Colonial Office in London, to colonial governments in eastern, central and southern Africa, this article demonstrates a lack of consensus on how the term ‘native’ was to be defined, despite its ubiquitous use. This complication arrived at a particularly crucial period when indirect rule was being implemented throughout the continent. Debate centered largely around the issue of racial descent versus culture as the determining factor. The ultimate failure of British officials to arrive at a clear definition of the term ‘native’, one of the most fundamental terms in the colonial lexicon, is consequently suggestive of both the potential weaknesses of colonial state formation and the abstraction of colonial policy vis-à-vis local empirical conditions. Furthermore, this case study compels a rethinking of contemporary categories of analysis and their historical origins.

African Futures

As major transformations unfold, our understanding of Africa, its past, its future and its relation to the world seems to be caught between two contending paradigms. The first is shaped by the discourse of crisis and disaster, emergency and survival. The second is future-oriented. It is preoccupied with Africa’s shifting position within the global economy and its apparent rise, the material and virtual flows and the infrastructures that connect Africa to its diasporas and the broader world, and to the social and aesthetic experiences of its inhabitants. This project will take stock of the contending discourses on African futures. It aims at drawing together in robust conversation a broad range of parallel debates currently going on in areas as diverse as literature, science-fiction, music and digital technologies, economics, futures markets, demography and public health, environmental studies, arts, design and fashion. It will also tease out the theoretical and practical implications of these discourses and the extent to which Afro-futurism could be read against similar trends elsewhere, in China, India, Russia and Brazil in particular.

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