Noise Over Camouflaged Polygamy, Colonial Morality Taxation, and a Woman-Naming Crisis in Belgian Africa


Hunt, Nancy Rose. 1991. “Noise Over Camouflaged Polygamy, Colonial Morality Taxation, and a Woman-Naming Crisis in Belgian Africa.” The Journal of African History 32 (3): 471-94.

Author: Nancy Rose Hunt


This essay concerns the peculiarities and contradictions of colonial morality taxation and legislation in Belgian Africa, and especially highlights analytical and historical commonalities between anti-polygamy measures and the unusual Belgian practice of taxing urban unmarried women. More generally, it is about colonialism and moral crisis, historical evidence and camouflage, popular memory and silence, colonial name-giving, and name-calling. I cannot be the first to notice that where women most often appear in the colonial record is where moral panic surfaced, settled and festered. Prostitution, polygamy, adultery, concubinage and infertility are the loci of such angst throughout the historical record of Belgian African colonial regimes, and one sometimes feels hard pressed to find women anywhere else. Yet moral crises did not always emerge due to the (perceived) customs and actions of the colonized. They also erupted from colonial policy and law itself, from the insight (or hindsight) that colonial policy was misconcerived or bred dangerous contradictory consequences. I begin in the midst of one kind of colonial noise: an historically shifting crisis in Belgian Africa over plural wives, and loud colonial debates over moral taxation and how best to preserve 'custom' while eradicating polygamy. This will serve as the context for considering another related, though temporally and geographically more confined crisis: the rebellion in the 1950s of Swahili women against the single women's tax in colonial Bujumbura. This local crisis also became noisy. Yet here the noise erupted as volatile African outrage, and its contrast betrays the embarassed silence and muted debates among colonial authorities over the contradictions and failings of moral taxation and policing measues. 

Topics: Coloniality/Post-Coloniality, Gender, Women, Gender Roles, Gendered Power Relations, Governance, Livelihoods, Sexual Livelihoods, Political Economies, Political Participation, Sexual Violence, Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Regions: Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, Europe, Western Europe Countries: Belgium

Year: 1991

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