Going native: racial transgression in the British world, 1880-1939

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of History


That Europeans were able to transform colonised people was a vital element in the rationale for empire; that they too were transformed is a phenomenon less well known. In part, this reflects the lasting force of colonial historiographies. Yet those with sufficient resources frequently disregarded those same social norms to which others were so strenuously encouraged to conform. In India, wealthy nabobs enjoyed the affectations of the East; in Kenya the wealthy aristocrat who disdained European society to live in splendid isolation amidst the African bush became a familiar figure. Social status, wealth, nationality and gender were all determinant factors in the performance of white identity and in the distinction of those forms of 'going native' deemed acceptable from those that were not.

Whilst there has been a great deal of work in recent years on cultures of empire and on the social composition of colonial communities, to date no serious scholarly work has taken the idea of 'going native' as its organising theme. On the contrary, while the figure of the white man 'gone native' continues to loom large in the mythology of empire, the history of racial transgression remains under-researched. Yet the deviation of imperial Britons from their prescribed identities and roles occurred across the British Empire and in diverse ways: Britons forged intimate (though not exclusively sexual) relations with 'native races'; they learned 'native' languages (and forgot their own); they eschewed white society and took seriously indigenous ethics, values and belief systems. That racial boundaries were critical to the credibility of colonial regimes is not to say that they were only seldom breached.

While historians have increasingly come to recognise the porous nature of racial boundaries they have focused preponderant attention on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries - when empire was ascendant but incomplete and when state structures enjoyed still limited reach. According to what has now become an entrenched historical narrative, by the later nineteenth century racial attitudes had hardened considerably. Britons, it is agreed, became conscious of their whiteness - and of the difference of racial 'Others' - as never before. This research will complicate that view by showing the extent to which British colonials did not conform to prevailing colonial ideologies. By documenting the ways in which British men and women 'went native', the project will challenge the erroneous assumption that Britons in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries failed to find value in the cultures and the peoples over whom their nation claimed to rule.

The proposed research will examine three principal themes under the overarching topic of 'going native': friendship, love and sex; habitus and the day to day; religion and belief. Each theme opens up new possibilities for exploring how individuals were able to borrow from, appropriate and adapt local cultures in the reformation of their own subjectivities and social roles. Together, they provide the organisational means for analysing how ideas around race and nation, so critical to the rationale for colonial domination, were contested, rationalised and redefined. Examining the ways by which colonial authorities sought to manage transgression, meanwhile, will extend upon recent research into the production of racial categories and the mechanics of social control. Throughout, the ambition is to hold in tension the controlling power of colonial regimes with the ability of individuals to manage or evade them.

Planned Impact

This is an academic study that will be presented in an accessible way, and it is primarily designed to have an impact on scholars, students and general readers concerned with British imperial and colonial history, the histories of Australia, Southern Africa and the Caribbean and the history of transgression and social control. That in itself represents a substantial potential impact. However, I will also seek to disseminate its findings still further, and to extend the reach of its impact in wider societal terms.

Firstly, I will aim to achieve impact not only in Britain but in each of the three overseas fieldwork sites. This will be achieved via a series of workshops that will not only provide an opportunity for me to disseminate my own research findings but will offer also an opportunity for engaging a wider (non-academic) audience. Through contacts already developed at each host university, I will explore in the lead up to each visit the possibilities for publishing in local media and for promoting the event outside as well as within the university. The intention will be to encourage local community members as well as academic practitioners to participate in debates over the nature of racial consciousness and the strength of racial boundaries - in the post-imperial present as well as in the imperial past.

Secondly, this study should be of interest to policymakers and the interested public in the UK, not least because of the continued interest over matters of national identity and racial prejudice in Britain today. An investigation into the extent (or rather, the absence) of racial consciousness in the vital 'high imperial' moment a century ago will add fresh energy to current debates over the history of the British Empire and the ways by which it is remembered today. In particular, the research will have direct relevance to recent discussions around Britishness and multiculturalism, race and racism (vide the John Terry and David Starkey controversies of 2011-2012) and the writing of British imperial and colonial history (see ongoing debates in national newspapers over the work of Niall Ferguson, Jeremy Paxman, Richard Gott, Kwasi Kwarteng and Pankaj Mishra). By aiming the proposed book towards a non-specialist as well as an expert historical audience, I aim to maximise the impact of the research and generate popular as well as scholarly debate.

The research will also have relevance for policymakers concerned with contemporary forms of social marginalisation and exclusion (not least when combined with prejudice around ethnicity, gender or class). By examining the ways by which colonial communities attempted to contain transgressive behaviours and remove from society those found to be at fault, the research will relate directly to the construction of an unimpeachable 'white' identity in the present as much as in the past. Submissions to the 'History and Policy' website and the UK national press are routes to achieving this impact.

Thirdly, like many other colleagues, I am committed to increasing the public's critical awareness of the past. As Widening Participation Officer in the School of History at Leeds, I have helped to organise a number of events designed to widen the appeal of studying history at university and have given workshops and mini-lectures to GCSE and A-level students. During and after the period of the proposed fellowship, I will use the contacts that I have developed both within the university and beyond in order to offer general talks about my research to interested local audiences.


10 25 50
Description Academic - Practitioner workshop, titled 'Moving Children: The History of Child Removal in Comparative Perspective' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The workshop brought together historians of child welfare with current practitioners in the field (social workers, researchers, child care professionals). The programme included thematic discussion forums besides conventional academic presentations. Both the historians and the practitioners who attended commented on the insight they had gained from learning outside their usual contexts
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Workshop titled 'The Private Lives of Empire', convened at the University of Sydney, April 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Workshop led to further colaborative research and publication.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Workshop, titled 'Racial Transgression in the British World, 1857 to the Present', convened at the University of Cape Town, 28-29 November 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Workshop led to further colaborative research and publication.

Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014