‘...trying to eat with both sides of his jaw at once’: Examining the Legal Status of African Christian Marriage in Colonial Natal

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Seminar Date
September 1, 2010
This short paper is an attempt to think through some questions about the relationship between the nineteenth century colonial state in Natal and its African subjects. In particular, it looks at the longstanding African Christian marriage law promulgated in 18871 as an exemplification of the complexity of the state’s attempt to fashion a legal place for Christian (monogamous) marriage amongst Africans who were not exempted from the operation of Native Law and who may or may not have been Christian. The debates preceding the passage of the law reveal a complicated picture of lawmaking in the Colony and present a range of views on gender, civilisation, Native exemption and the principles of Christian marriage. The result is a piece of legislation that is uncharacteristically complicated and subjective in its provisions. It struggles with the moral imperatives of fashioning a settler colonial state with a large majority of African subjects and is, at its heart, a concession to the difficulties of obtaining exemptions from Native Law in colonial Natal. Most importantly this law, which was part of the vexed search for coherent Native policy in Natal, reflects the schizophrenic nature of the Natal state’s settler colonial project as it straddles the divisions of Native Law and Colonial Law. It permits those Africans subject to its provisions to be governed by the civil laws regulating the lives of the colony’s white settlers for the purposes of marriage and possible subsequent entanglements such as divorce, but keeps them under Native law in all other civil matters. This ‘special dispensation’ for Africans choosing monogamous marriage reflects the uneasy capitulation of colonial lawmakers to the interests of missionaries and underlines both the abiding moral insecurity and the ongoing administrative equivocation of this marginal colonial state in the British Empire.
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