Colonial Conflict in Africa Essay Paper 4 pages

Colonial Authorities in Africa and Their Attempts to Curb Leisure Activities through the Law: The Conflict between African Identity and British Rule


The British colonial administrators in Africa viewed Africans like “children” in need of training in terms of how to be more masculine ala the Western tradition: for that reason, Oliver Bell, president of the British Film Institute, wrote “the native must be treated as we treat a ten-year-old white child, i.e….he must be shown films of action of the Western type” (Burns, 2002, p. 103). While it was true that Africans enjoyed cowboy films, in the years that followed Bell’s recommendation, there occurred among the settlers the sense that cowboy films were inspiring a violent attitude among the Africans and should therefore be banned. This attempt on the one hand to cultivate a Western ethic in the African and on the other to curtail aggressive or perceived hostile behavior was evidence of the colonial authorities’ attempts to superimpose a foreign sense of self on the African people, through the force of colonial law if necessary. The colonialists recognized, nonetheless, that leisure was a way to cultivate attitudes and ethics within the African people—and for that reason film as well as sport were of immense interest to the British as they sought to develop the African people into subjects they felt would be more amenable to the colonial rule of law.


As Fair (1997) notes, “playing football for the neighbourhood team was not a passing diversion for young children but a passionate part of becoming a male adult in post war Zanzibar” (p. 243). Yet even here, as the British promoted and fostered the athletic spirit among the Africans and supported their love for football, the colonial authorities also feared a negative side effect or consequence of the deep enthusiasm that the Africans evinced and the focus on ethnicity that ultimately emanated from the various representations by teams in Africa as the sport became more serious, with social, economic and political consequences being linked to victory or defeat on the football field. A sport meant to encourage and develop character in the Africans quickly became a source of nationalistic pride for the Africans, and this the colonial authorities worried would lead to sectarianism, racism, and in-fighting. For instance, Fair describes that “while the British actively encouraged Zanzibaris to identify and organise along ethnic lines, with the emergence of African Sports concern suddenly developed among the administration about the presence of ‘racialism’ in sport. This concern evolved into a panic during the early 1940s, when social and cultural organisations linked with the African Association began to organise protests against the distribution of war-rationed goods, particularly food and clothing, along racial lines” (p. 241). The rise of activism among the Africans was a serious blow to the colonial authorities’ desire to see their African subjects ruled as passive recipients of British codes of conduct.


As a result of their concern, the colonial authorities banned teams sponsored by ethnic associations from competing in the urban football league. Sports that were of less appealing character to Africans—such as cricket—were not included in this prohibition, as there was no real incentive among Africans to rally around these less attractive games. Football—like the cinema—became a way for Africans to use their leisure time to develop themselves according to their own natural and national self-interests. What the British had hoped—that these leisure activities spawn gentlemanly, submissive, pro-Western attitudes—had not come to pass. Instead, the Africans were filled with a sense of confidence and self-worth manifested in strong ethnic and nationalistic terms. For Africans in Zanzibar, football was like a rite through which all men had to pass. Fair (1997) notes that “playing football for the neighbourhood team was not a passing diversion for young children but a passionate part of becoming a male adult in post war Zanzibar. Boys who began their careers playing with tennis balls in the streets were often playing for the team in their neighbourhood by the time they were 13 or 14, marking an important social milestone of community recognition for their growing maturity as adult males” (p. 243). The relevance of football within the African consciousness as a vehicle by which African masculinity and identity could be achieved was supported by the appetite among Africans for the cowboy films that displayed the type of masculine bravado that appealed to them. In both cases, the leisure time was spent developing an identity that was not only not submissive in nature but that was also largely independent in its orientation.


Moreover, the relevance of Islamic law as an alternate law for Africans in states like Kenya and Zanzibar illustrate the extent to which the British actually had only a limited authority in these realms. Anderson (1960) noted around this time that “examples of territories where the Islamic law is regarded as a third, distinct system, on the other hand, are provided by Somaliland, Kenya and Zanzibar. In Somaliland both Qadis’ courts and other subordinate courts have been set up, each concerned with a different system of law. In Kenya, again, both Muslim courts and African tribunals exist, while there is also a Marriage and Divorce of Mohammedans Ordinance. In Zanzibar, by contrast, Islamic law virtually divides the field with local statute law, but provisions also exist for the application of customary law” (p. 437). In other words, the ethnic, social, cultural, political, and nationalistic identities that were being cultivated in the face of British colonial power in Africa were contrary to the expectations and aims of the British.


The British were opposed to the surge of African nationalism that the sport of cowboy films (ironically) helped to cultivate. Community solidarity was cultivated by Africans, as football clubs rallied around the newfound confidence and sense of self that gained ground among them: “neighbourhood teams and clubhouses were not only important to the men in the team but also served as focal points of community identity. By strengthening the unity of people within their neighbourhoods, the clubs also served to enhance the foundation from which African nationalist challenges were mounted in the coming decade” (Fair, 1997, p. 244). With this development, the British began to realize that their authority over the colonial empire was slipping away. Respect for British rule and, even, for authority itself was cited by the president of the Sports Association of Zanzibar, A. M. Bell, who wrote to the Chief Secretary his complaint that a new antagonistic spirit was to be found among the Africans: “Individuals, teams and clubs were refusing to accept the decisions of referees and the number of appeals had… ‘skyrocketed’ since the late 1940s” in Bell’s words (Fair, 1997, p. 245). Though objections and appeals were really not new among Africans in sport, “Bell interpreted these trends as ‘… symptomatic of the general deterioration in discipline, morale and respect for authority’” that the British sought to impose.


In conclusion, whether it was their oversight of films or their oversight of sport, the British colonial authorities had meant to cultivate among their African subjects a spirit of Western virtue—and instead they unleashed a rising tidal wave of African nationalism based on an African identity that the British had no interest in seeing oppose their rule. The colonial authorities’ attempts to censure cinema and control leisure activity ultimately backfired, as the Africans united and set about determining their own future—one that would resist the colonial powers in the end.




Anderson, J. (1960). Colonial law in tropical Africa: The conflict between English, Islamic and customary law. Indiana Law Journal, 35(4), 433-442.


Burns, J. (2002). John Wayne on the Zambezi: Cinema, Empire, and the American Western in British Central Africa. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 35(1), 103-117.


Fair, L. (1997). Kickin’ it: Leisure, politics and football in Colonial Zanzibar, 1900s-1950s. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 67(2), 224-251.


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