‘I ought not be married as a coloured person’: Rassenmischehen and Categories of Difference in 1920s Southwest Africa

Lisa M. Todd is Associate Professor of History at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto, an MA from Royal Holloway College, University of London, and a BA from the University of New Brunswick.  Todd’s first monograph, Sexual Treason in Germany during the First World War, appeared in 2017 with Palgrave-Macmillan. Her current project, “Racial Citizenship: Miscegenation, Scientific Authority, and the Creation of Intimate ‘Others’ in Modern Germany, 1880-1950,” examines the anthropological interest in “mixed race” sexual relationships, from the German colonial period, to the end of the Third Reich. 

Background: Post-Genocidal Mixed Marriage Regulations

In 1905, amidst the genocidal violence that accompanied the German-Herero and German-Nama Wars, colonial administrators in German Southwest Africa (SWA, present-day Namibia) introduced a ban on ‘civil marriages between whites and ‘natives.’ Two years later they nullified all so-called mixed marriages that had taken place before 1905. In 1908, a German Imperial Ordinance was published conferring on governors the power to make laws concerning the marriage of Indigenous peoples in Protectorates. In May 1912 the German Reichstag passed a controversial resolution ‘to ensure the validity of marriages between whites and natives in all German colonies’ and to determine the rights of illegitimate children, and in April 1914, the Governor of German Southwest Africa issued a decree allowing for the registration of marriages between Europeans and ‘natives’. The inconsistency of these legal decisions, over the course of only nine years, resulted in trauma to the families involved, but also an uneven implementation of the processes of sexual and racial segregation that accompanied the German occupation of Namibia.[1]

A lively historiography has developed around early twentieth century Rassenmischehen in the colonial sphere, as scholars seek to evaluate how the racialization of space compounded hierarchies of power in settler societies. Sexual ‘race-mixing,’ or miscegenation, presented obstacles to these power structures. White settlers increasingly saw biracial persons as cases in urgent need of categorization: would these people, with the ‘white blood in their veins’ be useful in future European domination, or did their ‘black blood’ mark them as future threats to white supremacy in occupied lands?  Uncertainty about the intersections of race, sexuality, and the law continued past German occupation, and were further complicated when South African authorities introduced their own anti-miscegenation legislation after 1919. The following example illustrates this point.

Disputing a ‘Racial’ Classification: The Example of Ernst Klein

In 1924, Ernst Klein, a settler in the Karas region of Namibia, near the border with South Africa, wrote to an administrator in the capital city of Windhoek, to apply for an ‘alteration’ to his marriage certificate, which classified his race as ‘Bastard.’ Here the term ‘bastard’ meant a person of mixed ethnic heritage, differing from the way our society uses ‘bastard’ as an insult, or as a derogatory term for an illegitimate child.  In Southwest Africa, Bastard was (and is) a politically charged term, and is used by the Rehoboth Basters to proudly connote their mixed Indigenous Khoikhoi and Afrikaner ancestry.[2] Klein insisted that he was of German nationality, and ‘ought not be married as a coloured person.’ He maintained that by being classified as a coloured person, his name ‘suffered,’ as did his career, because jobs meant for white people would be closed to him. Klein then provided several facts as proof of his Germanness. He stated he was the son of the German farmer Adolf Klein, and one of his elder brothers was working as an electrical engineer in Germany. Klein himself spoke German and English and boasted that he had attended the Marist brothers’ school. Klein was most likely referring to the Marist Brothers’ High School (formerly St. Joseph’s Academy), which had been founded as a Catholic school in Cape Town for Afrikaner children in 1867.[3]  Further, Klein wrote that though his father currently resided in Germany, ‘for health reasons,’ the man was still a landowner in Warmbad, southern Africa.[4]

Bureaucrats in Windhoek then sent out enquiries to determine Klein’s racial status. As one response, a magistrate in Keetmanshoop, the nearest town to Klein’s residence, responded that Ernst Klein “is a person of mixed descent.” He concurred that Adolf Klein was a German man, but that his mother, Cornelia Ida Derkoe was the daughter of a European father and a coloured mother. The magistrate continued by stating that Cornelia’s brothers were ‘well known’ to him to be coloured persons – ‘they have the appearance of bastards and their mode of living is that of coloured people.’ He concluded by stating, ‘Ernst Klein himself has the appearance of a bastard. The girl he married, Mabel Elliton, is also of mixed descent.’[5]

Based on this evidence, administrators requested copies of Ernst Klein’s mother’s and father’s birth certificates.[6] Klein was unable to produce these documents; instead he produced five names of witnesses from the ‘old population,’ all farmers who lived in the region.[7] The administrator’s office seemingly did not follow up on this recommendation. Klein then attempted to locate the marriage register entry for his parents, married in 1897, but was told the record of marriages in the local office did not go past 1895.[8] By the end of November, Klein received a letter stating that, in the absence of official documentation, the marriage certificate could not be altered. Presumably, he and his family then continued their lives classified as ‘coloured’ – further research is necessary to determine the outcome of this crucial distinction under the South African apartheid system. 

Determining ‘Race’ in Segregationist Societies

This example is one of the many records in the collections of the Namibian National Archives that detail the ways individuals sought to navigate the sexual and racial segregationist policies of first the German, then the South African, colonial systems. It also illustrates that in the absence of reliable biological indicators of ‘racial’ distinctions, bureaucrats used physical features (hair and skin colour – ‘looks coloured’) and lifestyle characteristics (here, languages spoken, schools attended, land ownership; in other cases, religious observances, housekeeping practices, and social circles) to place people into the categories that would define their everyday lives.  Social scientists like Eugen Fischer tried to use anthropological methodologies to categorize mixed race peoples, but in the end, imperial officials had to rely on the opinions of settlers and neighbours.[9]


Diesen Artikel zitieren: Lisa M. Todd, „‘I ought not be married as a coloured person’: Rassenmischehen and Categories of Difference in 1920s Southwest Africa“, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 18/06/2020, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/1395, (abgerufen am: Datum).


[1] This research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 
[2] Exhibition panel, Rehoboth Museum, Rehoboth, Namibia.
[3] For a brief history of the school, see: http://www.maristsj.co.za/st-josephs/heritage/
[4] National Archives of Namibia (NAN) SWAA A 189/1, Registration of Marriages, Goab – Ernst Klein to the Administration in Windhoek, 17 September 1924.
[5] NAN SWAA A189/1 – Office of the Magistrate, Keetmanshoop to the Private Secretary of the Administrator, Windhoek, 30 September 1924. 
[6] NAN SWAA A189/1 – Secretary for Southwest Africa, Windhoek to Ernst Klein, Kiries West, District Keetmanshoop, 10 October 1924
[7] NAN SWAA A189/1 – Ernst Klein to the Administration in Windhoek, 7 November 1924. 
[8] NAN SWAA A189/1 – Office of the Magistrate to Ernst Klein, 21 October 1924.
[9] Eugen Fischer, Die Rehobother Bastards und das Bastardierungsproblem beim Menschen: Anthropologische und Ethnographiesche Studien am Rehobother Bastardvolk in Deutsch-Südwest-Afrika.  Jena: 1913. See my own research in “Studying Sexual and Racial ‘Mixture’: Eugen Fischer and the Rehoboth Basters of German Southwest Africa, 1908-1913.” In After the Imperialist Imagination: Twenty-Five Years of Research on Global Germany and its Legacies. Eds. Sara Pugach, David Pizzo, and Adam Blackler. Peter Lang Publishing, forthcoming.


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