The extensive body of literature on the colonial period in Africa has predominantly focused on sociological analyses, particularly with Balandier’s influential concept of the “colonial situation” introduced a generation ago. However, the examination of women’s imagery and roles in the construction and evolution of modern colonial Africa remains notably limited. This aspect demands increased empirical and analytical attention for several compelling reasons.
Firstly, the allure of colonies was not only driven by economic and strategic motives but also by exoticism, where erotic imagery played a significant role. As Europe entered the rationalized, industrial setting of the late nineteenth century, colonial “possessions” became part of the collective imagination, representing unexpressed sexual delights. Whether portrayed as a “Madame Butterfly” in the Far East, a harem courtesan in North Africa and the Middle East captured by artists from Ingres to Matisse, or the “Black Eve” featured on French colonial stamps, the figure of the “native woman” became a potent enticement for European men venturing into the colonies. This amalgamation of adventure, potential profits, and encounters with exotic women formed the flip side of the image of Africa, simultaneously considered alluring and unsafe for Europeans due to its perceived unhealthy aspects.
In exploring the early years of colonization, this article delves into the perception of a specific group of Westerners: women travelers in Africa. The rationale for dedicating a chapter to this demographic is rooted in the marginalized status of women in Victorian-industrial society. During this era, women found themselves on the periphery of European society concerning economic and political power. Deprived of voting rights and effectively excluded from professions such as law, medicine, university teaching, managerial positions, and occupations of high socio-economic status, women faced a structural imbalance akin to the plight of African Americans in American society until relatively recently.
A retrospective examination reveals a prevailing “institutional sexism” that restricted women’s participation in broader society on an equal footing with men. Biological myths, such as the notion of women being the “weaker sex” and possessing mental and psychological characteristics fundamentally different from men, further reinforced gender disparities. Women were commonly perceived as more emotional, dependent on men, and lacking creativity, with these traits attributed to “innate” biological or constitutional factors.
Understanding the roles and perceptions of women in colonial Africa becomes crucial for a comprehensive analysis of the era. By focusing on women travelers, who navigated the complexities of a society marked by both colonial influence and Victorian ideals, we gain valuable insights into the intersections of gender, power, and cultural dynamics. This nuanced exploration sheds light on the intricate ways in which women contributed to and were shaped by the multifaceted landscape of colonial Africa, challenging prevailing stereotypes and offering a more holistic understanding of this historical period.