Colonizing through scrapped tablecloth

Die erwachende Sphinx, both the book and the film and, presumably, the lectures, covered the topic of how European clothing customs would spread over ‘black’ Africa and civilize it in a particular way.

The most radical version, in style and wording, of this topic, however, is the referenced article, particularly in view of racist, social Darwinist, and colonial discourses. Apparently meant to entertain—and meeting the needs of the readers of the largest German illustrated magazine of his time—Ross combines two arguments. One suggests that the clothing industry, more precisely the trade in old clothes, could  reap enormous financial rewards, as Africa’s black population, after contact with European civilization, will prefer clothing to nakedness. The other argument could be called humorous-ironic but, in its core, it is undoubtedly a racially biased, colonialist program. While the film and the book describe the new clothing habits as “natural” signs of European influence, the article’s photos, captions, and narrative sarcastically suggest that the indigenous population is indifferent to what clothes are made for. Indeed, this is why high profits can be made, as Africans do not know how to wear trousers, they are not aware that socks come in pairs and that a camisole is an undergarment for women and not for men. “In unexploited or remote areas, the Negro lacks every critical organ and ability to differentiate European clothing. There, even such things have a value that a ragman would reject as absolutely unusable.”

Ross, apparently trying to be not too one-sided, introduces a formula, common among colonists, so as to tame his account: the disadvantage of being physically ‘civilized’ is diminished resistance to diseases.1

Unlike most of Ross’s travelogues the article’s photos and text were not included in his two African travel books. This is probably not because of any self-critical attitude on Ross’s part. Rather, the general topic of the article would not have fitted the books’ strict itineraries.

Katalin Teller

Colin Ross. Afrika, das Weltwarenhaus der alten Kleider. Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. 1927 May 8; 36 (19): 779–781.

Topic: Colonialism
Case: Speaking engagements


1 See Brett L. Shadle. The Souls of White Folk: White settlers in Kenya, 1900s-1920s. Manchester: Manchester University Press; 2015; 32-41(Studies in Imperialism).

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