Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal/Potchefstroomse Elektroniese Regsblad

The AJOL site is currently undergoing a major upgrade, and there will temporarily be some restrictions to the available functionality.
-- Users will not be able to register or log in during this period.
-- Full text (PDF) downloads of Open Access journal articles will be available as always.
-- Full text (PDF) downloads of subscription based journal articles will NOT be available
We apologise for any inconvenience caused. Please check back soon, as we will revert to usual policy as soon as possible.

A Disgrace to the Master Race: Colonial Discourse Surrounding the Incarceration of "European" Prisoners within the Colony of Natal towards the End of the Nineteenth and Beginning of the 20th Centuries

Stephen Allister Peté


The discourse surrounding the punishment of offenders within a society reveals much about the particular ideological underpinnings of power within that society. Penal discourse within colonial societies is particularly interesting in that it traces the specific contours of the racist ideologies which characterise those societies. This article is focused upon penal discourse within the Colony of Natal towards the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Within the colony at this time, the race of an offender was becoming increasingly important in determining the type of punishment, treatment and training considered  appropriate for that offender. This article is focused - in particular - upon the discourse surrounding the punishment of "European" offenders in colonial Natal. It is submitted that the punishment of these offenders raised all sorts of ideological problems for the colonists, since the offenders in question were members of the white "master race". The following central themes within the colonial penal discourse of the time are discussed: first, the role that "shame" and "degradation" were considered to play in the punishment of white - but not black - prisoners; second, the perceived need to train white - but not black - prisoners in skilled work, to enable white prisoners to find employment upon leaving prison; and, third, the perceived need to keep white - but not black - prisoners out of the public gaze, in particular avoiding situations in which white prisoners could be seen being punished alongside black prisoners and subject to the control of black prison guards. Examining the precise contours of the penal ideology which underpinned the punishment of offenders in colonial Natal may be useful in understanding certain of the foundations of racist penal thinking during subsequent periods of South African history, including the notorious apartheid era.

Keywords: Apartheid; colonial; colony; discourse; discrimination; ideology; imprisonment; offenders; Natal; penal; prisoners; prisons; punishment; race; racial.

AJOL African Journals Online