Marital Status as Colonial Project in British Southern Africa

Michael Yarbrough, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY)

This paper examines marital recognition as a site where British colonial and Indigenous customary legalities struggled for authority over the intimate and family lives of Indigenous people in southern Africa. In particular, I argue that a key goal for both church and state colonial officials was to transform African marriages from an ambiguous process in which couples became gradually more married over time, into a clear and stable status that began with a recognized wedding ceremony and lasted until one spouse's death. While many scholars have traced colonial interventions into Africans' marriages, and other scholars have documented the processual character of marriage in African communities, this paper bridges these two lines of thought to highlight how the creation of marital status as a clear and stable category was an essential component of the British colonial project to transform marriage in southern Africa. I trace how church and state officials tried to accomplish this by elevating weddings as a necessary element of a recognized marriage, and by discouraging bridewealth processes through which marriage was formed under customary legalities. I argue that these efforts were only partially successful, as weddings did come to mark a "complete" marriage for many, but bridewealth practices continued and even became lengthier and more intricate. Marital "status" in black South African communities emerged from these struggles as a hybrid phenomenon, marked by both ambiguity and clarity in ways that reflect its co-construction through state, religious, and customary legalities.

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 Presented in Session 217. Gender and Law