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On ‘Cloth Girl’, Sexuality and Colonialism in Africa

Sometime last month, I read Cloth Girl by Marilyn Heward Mills and while I admit that I did not read the book’s blurb in its entirety before buying the book, I was nevertheless eager to read a book that was not only set in an African country during the colonial period but that also had Africans as main characters. Cloth Girl is the tale of Matilda Lamptey who at 14 years old is basically pressured (by her family) into marrying Robert Bannerman, ‘the suave and sophisticated Gold Coast lawyer’. Matilda then has to contend with Julie, the first wife of the household. I really enjoyed reading Matilda’s story and would have enjoyed Cloth Girl even more if the book didn’t at the same time follow the story of Audrey, the wife of the assistant of the Governor who left England to settle in the Gold Coast due to her husband’s profession.

I only started really enjoying Cloth Girl about halfway through the book simply because I kept on wondering what exactly Audrey’s character was doing it. To put things bluntly, Audrey’s moaning about how horrible life in Africa was did not interest me at all. Really, to say that I hated Audrey’s character would be an underestimation. As I read the book, I really wanted to just skip the chapters that had to deal with Audrey’s oh-so dreadful life as the wife of a local administrator. I really would have appreciated the book more if we did not see the Gold Coast through Audrey’s eyes. To me, her point of view was too typical. I really wish Matilda’s character had the book to herself. Her story was to me far more interesting that Audrey’s typical view of life in colonial Africa.

Apart from this, I enjoyed Cloth Girl. I really liked the depiction of the Bannerman’s and their wealthy status in community. Matilda comes from an impoverished background and it was also interesting to see how she managed in her role as a second wife. I absolutely adored Matilda’s character and I liked her character’s development as she went from an uncertain and confused 14 year old girl who was married off in order to improve her family’s status to a woman who stood up for herself and what she believed in.

Another aspect of the book that I found intriguing was *spoiler* the relationship between Matilda and Audrey’s husband, Alan. I guess it should be, Matilda’s affair with Alan as though Audrey had left Alan before the affair took place, Matilda was still married to Robert. I had noticed Alan’s attraction to Matilda pretty early in the book but I didn’t think anything would happen between them after the book was not a story about Matilda’s love for a white man but of her marriage to Robert Bannerman.

After reading Cloth Girl, I was left curious about what I now know is called, sexuality and colonialism. I was mostly interested in relations between African women and European men in colonial African countries which admittedly was a topic I knew relatively nothing about as it is not something people talk about or is portrayed in movies or books. On the other hand, it’s pretty much well-known that some African men did marry European women during the period, I’m thinking of Seretse Khama. Cloth Girl was the first book I read that mentioned such an interracial relationship that was consensual, it appears that interracial relationships involving European or Asian men and African women are ‘the most neglected face of colonial encounters’.

Reading about the lives of women living under colonial rule is pretty amazing on its own. It was nice to learn about the autonomy some of these women exercised and the way some women ‘claimed to follow their hearts’ rather than being controlled by European men under the name of colonialism. I found two sources on sexuality and colonialism in Africa which I thought I’d share here. While one was about women in southern Mozambique, the other hit much closer to home. In What My Heart Wanted*, Heidi Gengenbach notes that Magude women of Mozambique had interacted with European men within feminine spaces even as the Portuguese men treated African men badly. Apparently African women of all ages drank, danced and negotiated sexual union with white men from all sectors of the colonial society.

Gengenbach interviewed a woman Rosalina Malungana (born in 1914) who was ‘married’ to a Portuguese driver, Agosto Capela whom she met during her teenage years as a student in the Swiss Missions girls’ school in Lourenco Marques. Agosto was among the other white and mestico men who had been interested in Rosalina but her uncle, a pastor with whom she and her mother lived, was against Rosalina being with a white man. Through a series of somewhat unfortunate events (you can read Rosalina’s interview here) she ended up with Agosto. And even though colonial law would not permit the couple to marry, Rosalina lived with Agosto referring to him as her ‘husband’ till he died.

Esther Johnson and Mark Hall. Image credit**

The other well-document relationship comes from Nigeria and is more tragic and I guess more sensational than Rosalina’s story. In the early 1950s, Esther Johnson (née Ada Ocha Ntu) a 22 year old ‘Western Igbo’ woman killed her lover, Mark Hall a middle-aged British official of the Nigerian Railway Corporation. Apparently she had killed him because he had returned from a home leave to tell her that he had married an English bride and had completely used the £400 she had lent him to buy a taxi for her so that she could start a business.

While there is no way of knowing exactly how Agosto felt for Rosalina as the story is told by Rosalina, it’s pretty obvious that Mark Hall used and rejected Esther due to his betrayal. If you read Rosalina’s interview, how she came to be with Agosto reads like a romance novel however this wasn’t the case with Esther. That is not to say that Esther did not have ambitions of her own as apparently when African women saw advantages in unions with white men, they went for it and did not view their relationships as more oppressive or exploitative than marriage to an African man.

It seems that in 1950s southern Nigeria, interracial relationships were mostly tolerated by colonial society. It was normal for European men to take local mistresses who they usually left behind, sometimes with children, when they were posted elsewhere. A few white officers married Nigerian women without significant social or political penalties. Also foreign educated Nigerian men married European wives.

Franz Fanon argued that colonialism resulted in inferiority complexes among people of colour which manifested in the desire for sexual relations with Europeans and that black women wanted white men as a way of lightening their offspring and gaining status by association. On the other hand it has also been argued that it was not only white skin or colonial power that made European men attractive to some African women but the association of whiteness with wealth.

What I read
*Gengenbach Heidi (2002), “‘What My Heart Wanted’: Gendered Stories of Early Colonial Encounters in Southern Mozambique” in Women in African Colonial Histories ed. Allman Jean et al, Indiana University Press, USA.

**Lindsay A. Lisa (2005), ‘A Tragic Romance, A Nationalist Symbol: The Case of the Murdered White Lover in Colonial Nigeria’, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 17, No. 2.


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I haven’t read Cloth Girl, but now I will. If I’m not mistaken, although Franz Fanon theorized that “marrying white” was an expression of the destroyed self esteem of colonized people, he himself married a white French woman. It seems to me interracial relationship can also be a very savvy way to harness the benefits of white privilege for one’s own use.

    I like your blog a lot. I’m definitely going to stop by often!

    1. thanks for you kind comment Karyn! you’re right about Franz Fanon, he did marry a white French woman apparently after he wrote his thesis in which he made that argument about black women marrying white men.

  2. Nice review and an interesting read.

    I think there is a big flaw in the story. Unlike USA where there are plenty of black people who are clearly of mixed heritage, Africa largely is not the same. In the colonial heartlands like East Africa (Kenya Uganda Tanzania) and South Africa (Congo, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe), there really isn’t a huge number of mixed race people especially in the relevant age group who should have been born circa early 1900’s to mid 1950s.

    In essence there are several theories that could arise.

    1. Interacial relationships if any were extremely rare.
    2. Perhaps any children from these relationships could have been aborted or killed.

    In short, the theory that lighter skinned children increased status appears to be a reference to post colonial times as opposed to colonial times.

    1. a big flaw in the novel or in the arguments? i sort of agree with your second point, perhaps the children from such relationships may have been aborted because i hardly see them around here. the few mixed raced people from the older generation i see are those from northern Nigeria who have Arab and Nigerian heritage. i’m yet to see any from southern Nigeria though my friend once told me her grandmother had Greek blood which they only found out after a test or something.

      i think it’s possible that lighter-skinned children may have been used to increase social status even during colonial times but then again i don’t agree with Fanon’s argument.

  3. Wow!!! This was very interesting, I am sure going to read these book… after my exams hehehehe… I wonder what happened to the Nigerian woman who killed her lover…

    1. oh Esther Johnson was originally sentenced to death but was given life imprisonment due to the immense public outcry her case recieved. in the end she was released from prison when Nigerian gained its independence, apparently she was ‘pardoned in the name of the Queen’. Esther then went on to marry a Nigerian man and presumably lived happily ever after.

  4. The topic of interracial relationships in Colonial Nigeria, West Africa is an interesting one. I know that having read, Sinclairs “The Grand Emporium” and visited the Cape Coast Castle a number of times, that English,British Colonialists in the 18th Century used always have an African Wife, the issue was one of context of marriage. The British who were lucky to of survied in the tropics known at the time as the “The White Mans Grave” have long lasting relationships with the local women. They would pay them maintaince and have families, however, once they visited England they would often have an English wife, this wife would hardly ever see her husband who would be “Away in the Colonies” but would have provided for the Woman to have respectability within her class. Think Jane Austen timesm where to become married was considered essential for a Lady.

    The Rub would occur upon the death of the Colonial Adminstrator, while during his working life he would have provided for the African wife and children, upon his death under English laws his estate would automatically go to the English wife as often the local African wife marriage would have occured under Custom marriage and not in the Church. Nonetheless in West Africa there are many Africans with Western Surnames deriving from these such relationships. One most dominant ancestor was in Sierra Leone, where the English man had some many offspring named after him that that to this day they are a clan still high in SL society.

    Once the introduction of anti malaria came into it in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, and the presence of some white women who accompanined their Husband, read Slyvia Leith-Ross’s book “Stepping Stones” socially cocoerced the Colonial adminstrators not to have Local African wives, I deliberately do not use the word mistrisses as it implies that their union was inferior to that of a British union. In short a gossiping British Wife in the old Colonial club would reap havoc to a young Oxbridge District Officers career if he was very serious with a local African wife. Also there was an element of Class. Early 20th C the Colonial Adminstrators were former Military Men, then later the Oxbridge set, most eduction in West Africa and Nigeria was missionary taught with a few bright sparks being sent on to the UK for tertiary Education, these undergraduates were overwhelmingly young men.

    I have read dozens of former District Officers memoirs and only one admitted to having a intimate relationship with a Nigerian. I would presume that intimacy must of happened it was almost custom for local Oba’s or Chiefs to over the District Officer out in the remote bush a few “Ladies for company” but not formal relationships. These relationships would have occurred later in the Colonial period near independence, especially once other British men and women outside the Colonial service were active in the regions, in the preparation towards self determination. In short theses relationships were very very rare.

  5. “It seems that in 1950s southern Nigeria, interracial relationships were mostly tolerated by colonial society. It was normal for European men to take local mistresses who they usually left behind, sometimes with children, when they were posted elsewhere. A few white officers married Nigerian women without significant social or political penalties. Also foreign educated Nigerian men married European wives.”

    This was the topic which my post was referring to. Moreover, the mention of Franz Fanon was also off topic.

    As is already known Franz Fanon was a Black man who grew up in Martinique ( in the West Indies) while under French Colonial rule. Martinique is not Africa so the whole debate about shadism or light skin dark skin is not relevant in British Colonial West Africa as the French ruled their colonies under the banner of the ethos of the French Revolution, thereby nameing their colonies merely Departments, while the British using indirect rule left the African traditional structure as much intact as possible.

    Therefore the notion of African women looking at their liasions with White Colonials as some sort of social advantage would be more of a revisionist view than one based on the facts of that time.

    First because Africans are very proud of their respective culture especially the Yoruba, who were known to be very chauvinistic towards the Colonial Adminstration and secondly in the run up to independence the Colonial system and participation of it was seen to be anti patriotic, hence the Tradional Leaders being regulated after independence, so from a social view a Woman would have very little standing based on the idea her Husband was a white European. Such relationships were rare. The relationships with African men typically occurred while they were studying in Great Britain, as there were very few white women working for the Colonial adminstration in Africa at that time, and no doubt they would be having to fend off hundreds of White European Male suitors looking for a “Nice Lady” to settle down with ( i.e one of their own).

    NB: Don’t worry no more posts from me on this subject.

    1. Prince Peter,

      I really appreciate your inputs into this discussion.

      I don’t have any thing to add except to clarify that when I mention relationships, I am not talking about marriage rather I’m looking at purely sexual relations. I’m familiar with all the societal hurdles that interracial couples face today, talkless of during the colonial era. And knowing the unbalanced relation between the coloniser and the colonised, I am not sure how comfortable I am with the idea of marriage between European colonisers and indigenous African women back in that era.

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