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How Olive Schreiner Scandalised 1900s South Africa with “Revelations” of Sexual Attraction – Excerpt from Wine, Women and Good Hope

Wine, Women and Good HopeIn her book Wine, Women and Good Hope: A history of scandalous behaviour in the Cape, June McKinnon offers a highly entertaining account of misdeeds and scandals of early colonialists of Cape Town.

In the chapter “Rollicking into the twentieth century”, McKinnon details the booming business of prostitution in the early years of the 20th century. The decent citizenry of the Cape took great offense at any kind of female sexuality, so there were obviously many attempts by the law and by voices of morality to try and rein in the irrepressibly brazen women who walked the streets.

In these sexually repressive times, Olive Schreiner “was branded as being no lady” for admitting that she was sexually attracted to the man who became her husband. That, of course, was not the worst of the feminist writer’s crimes.

Read the excerpt:

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Rollicking into the twentieth century

The dawn of the twentieth century brought the start of a new era for the Cape of Good Hope. Tensions that had built up in the preceding century between the British and the Boers finally came to a head with the Second Anglo-Boer War, fought from 1899 to 1902. The war cast a shadow on the country for over two years, and its effect on both the individual and shared lives of the inhabitants of the Boer republics and British colonies would change the course of South African history.

In the Cape, the war generated an influx of immigrants who would help to alter the social dynamics of the region. Although their arrival did have an impact on some of its broader societal issues, including the politics and conflicts in the colony, it also had social consequences that could be viewed as less grand or epic than what is usually associated with war. While many things changed, many other things stayed the same. And in regard to the high jinks that had plagued the Cape for nearly three centuries, the Anglo-Boer War had no less of an influence in diminishing their seedier aspects than any other major event occurring in its history. Indeed, you could say that the war brought this out in full force.

From 1899, a huge number of European prostitutes travelled to South Africa, where a mountain of business awaited them from British Tommies to weary civilians, all in need of a distraction from the dread of war. Russian, British and German, as well as local, prostitutes patrolled the streets and docks, and brothels and pimps flourished. When Kruger sent the Uitlanders packing after declaring martial law in October 1899, the sex trade flooded into Cape Town from the Reef. In 1895, Gold Reef City had 1,000 known prostitutes, and in Johannesburg, which had ninety-seven brothels in operation at the time, the identities of thirty-six French, twenty German and five Russian prostitutes are documented in historical records – and this in addition to the local and foreign prostitutes whose names have not been recorded. As in Kimberley, many prostitutes in Johannesburg also worked as barmaids.1 By 1902, the number of brothels escalated in Cape Town from the Woodstock tollgate to the Newmarket, Mill and Buitengracht streets in central Cape Town, with a total of 400 prostitutes occupying them. Many individuals found new careers as agents, who made bucket-loads of cash by exporting foreign women into South Africa. By 1902, it was estimated that over 400 prostitutes had arrived from Europe.2 However, in spite of its popularity and the nature of the business, inequalities along gender, social and racial lines abounded even in the sex trade, as they do in every other career, reputable or not. During the war, the going rate charged by less reputable white prostitutes was two pounds for a night, while coloured prostitutes earned only ten shillings for the same service. For a quickie, the princely sum of 7s 6d (seven shillings, six pence) was charged.3 To supplement their income, many prostitutes and even their pimps – who benefited from most of the profits their workers made – turned to petty crime.

The worthy citizens of Cape Town complained to no avail that prostitutes had become more brazen in seeking out clients. A common sight in one wealthy suburb was an audacious madam who hired a wagon and filled it with her employees, all of them dressed in garish coloured dresses with low-cut necklines and feathered head-dresses. The wagon stopped whenever a prospective client was spotted, and the prostitutes would loudly announce their specialities to the street at large, regardless of who was in earshot. At Table Bay Harbour, sailors were met by prostitutes, pimps and madams who dished out calling cards with names and addresses of local delights on them.4 In one incident, a gentleman reported to the police that he had been pickpocketed in broad daylight by two prostitutes. The women had accosted him on a busy street in central Cape Town, pretending to need his help. But when this Good Samaritan followed them to a nearby house, they quickly revealed their real intentions and offered him their services, which he refused. He then tried to leave, but they grabbed him by his jacket. Although he finally managed to escape, he later discovered that his wallet, containing a tidy sum of money, had disappeared.5

In 1901, police reported that there were 200 brothels in Cape Town. The Morality Bill was soon passed by Parliament in the same year, which attempted to check the proliferation of these dens of sin. It also prohibited black men from consorting with white prostitutes6 – an issue which the Cape government had been under increasing pressure from the (white) public to deal with. While intermarriage, cohabitation and fraternisation between men and women of different races were not frowned on in many circles during Dutch rule of the Cape, this generally accepted social system was altered somewhat with British rule. Interracial relationships, although not forbidden by law, were not accepted in middle- and upper-class society, and certain white citizens hoped to keep it that way. In 1901, a public meeting to protest such indecent relations, particularly those occurring between black men and white prostitutes, was one of the catalysts that brought about the establishment of the Morality Law. The meeting, which had been organised by several churches, had a huge turnout, with the congregations and clergy from each church attending it. The WCTU had also been forceful in their attempts to end prostitution in the Cape, and ensured that their voices were heard by those who could assist their cause.7 Plain clothes cops were put on patrol to catch unwitting prostitutes in the act of soliciting, but this did not prevent sex across the colour line or the number of sex workers who walked the streets. Pimps and brothel owners had deep pockets, and many bribed the police to look the other way, which made it harder to catch the culprits responsible for the proliferation of the sex industry.

Things got so out of control that police started targeting anyone they could lay their hands on, whether they were guilty or not. On one occasion, a young Russian Jewess on her way home from work was pushed into a cab in Buitenkant Street and taken to the Caledon police station, where she was charged with soliciting. She swore that she was just an innocent bystander, and accused the policeman who had grabbed her of assaulting her, but she was locked up nonetheless. The police had falsely written down her home address as 40 Caledon Street, the premises of a well-known pimp and gangster who ran a gambling den, so it was only after the girl was sentenced in court that her worried family could discover her whereabouts. The close-knit Jewish community in the Cape was outraged by the entire affair and demanded an investigation into the matter and the role the police officer played in everything. What seems most probable is that the police had been using the girl as a means to arrest the gangster in the first place, either to have him pay for a former crime, or to get out of his clutches if he had a hold over them. Cape Town did, after all, have its own complex criminal web, a mafia of sorts with a number of players, including members of the police force, who demanded protection money from brothels, gangsters and pimps. The policeman who had arrested the girl, along with the gangster and his henchman, received minimal punishments by the court, and were soon set free and allowed to carry on with their nefarious activities.8

A burning question I have had while chronicling these events is the paucity of information on rent boys, or homosexual prostitution. It must have existed, but Victorians and Edwardians kept their eyes and ears shut to the love that dare not speak its name. This was a male-dominated society, and anything that threatened to tarnish the idea of what constituted masculinity was to be squashed immediately, as evidenced by the horror and outrage displayed in the Oscar Wilde affair in 1895. In the Cape, male prostitutes must have had a field day with the influx of British soldiers during the Anglo-Boer War.

For many women in the Cape, and in the rest of southern Africa, the twentieth century allowed them to test and sometimes even cross the lines that circumscribed traditional female behaviour and roles. In 1900, a letter written to The Owl – a jingoistic pro-British mouthpiece run by wealthy women for the upper-middle classes of Cape Town’s English-speaking community – exposed how women had begun using the theatre to express their sexuality more openly. In the article, the writer complains that moral standards in the theatres had fallen dramatically based on the way dancers appeared on stage in flowing skirts that billowed up to reveal more than just ankle.9 As in every generation since time immemorial, there were also grumblings about women’s fashion and what was considered appropriate female dress. Working-class girls caused a scandal when they started wearing metal regimental badges on their hats, ribbons and blouses, which, the publication states, was to attract suitors from the Tommies.10 For The Owl, this kind of conduct by girls was frowned on by its editors, whose ideas on female behaviour fell largely into the category of their being seen (in appropriate dress) and not heard. A woman’s role had to be geared towards that of the silent but supportive wife who stands behind her man in the safe space of the family home while he determines his place in the real world. To counteract some of the rebellion displayed by their younger peers, the publication warned young women to start exhibiting more maidenly modesty. If a young man wanted to kiss a girl goodnight at her parents’ front door, even after a few dates, she had to refuse, as this would make her beau more eager to propose marriage.11

At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, there were debates in Parliament over whether women should be allowed to take clerical jobs, or to become typists or secretaries – careers previously reserved for men. When it was finally agreed that women could be employed in these jobs, it was with the caveat that they receive less pay than a male colleague performing the same work. Following this, of utmost importance was the passing of a law that all offices be segregated and partitions erected between male and female workers. There was to be no contact whatsoever between the sexes, as it was generally believed that males and females working together would lead to the downfall of a young woman’s integrity. Many young men also risked falling into temptation and being led astray by their female colleagues.12

Author Olive Schreiner was branded as being no lady when she had the audacity to speak up in public about the Boer War and the part women should play in it. A report in The Owl, dated 29 June 1900, provides details of the rally held in Cape Town, which was organised by the South African Conciliation Committee, the members of which were pro-Boer supporters who mostly spoke English. Schreiner was an active member in this committee and arranged and spoke at its rallies and public meetings – a concept that horrified the The Owl’s editors, who were not emerging feminists like Schreiner. The publication was not the only media that criticised Schreiner’s demonstrations, where she would rouse the emotions of women to support the Boers. In November 1900, the Cape Times reported on a rally held by Schreiner in Paarl under the headline ‘More hysterics’, while another newspaper, The Review, described the speakers and their audience as a ‘shrieking contingent’.13 Her speeches were accused of bringing about ‘undignified scenes’, in which females would become overly passionate and ‘het up’, an accusation frequently thrown at women who had the nerve to speak out about anything.14 As the scandalised Sir Henry Cloete revealed in his dealings with the Voortrekker Susanna Smit in 1843 (see Chapter 11), such conduct was considered unwomanly, and against the natural order of things.

Schreiner pushed gender boundaries even further when she admitted to some of her friends that, upon first meeting her husband Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner, she had found herself attracted to him because of his muscled and tanned arms.15 A revelation like this reveals an obvious case of sexual attraction, a sensation no woman in that era should have thought of owning up to or deeming essential to her happiness. Schreiner’s book, The Story of an African Farm, published in 1883, had already caused outrage in its portrayal of a young woman as a sexual being.16 She, unsurprisingly, had a fraught relationship with Cecil John Rhodes, who she met in 1890, and they debated together on a number of social and political issues. Schreiner had become such a popular figure that, in an attempt to limit her influence over some women in the Cape, Rhodes was forced to suffer the company of 100 giggling school girls from Rhenish High, who he invited to tea and a personal guided tour of his estate, Groote Schuur, with the hope that he could steer these girls in a direction as far removed from Schreiner’s feminist, pro-Boer way of thinking as possible. Rhenish High, founded in 1806 as a private school, was known for its innovative teaching methods, and for holding Schreiner up as an example of the New Woman.17 Rhodes probably thought he could persuade the girls against adopting such a radical feminist outlook as Schreiner’s by showing them the advantages enjoyed by traditional English ladies. By 1892 Schreiner chose not to see Rhodes ever again because of his refusal to stop the enforcement of the Strop Bill, which would legalise the flogging of coloured servants for any number of ‘offences’, including the neglect of their duties to their employers.18

In June 1915, thirty-five women volunteered their services to the police force to assist with the apprehension of sex workers on the streets. This was the first time women had been recruited as police officers in the Cape, and the success of this initial group led to the employment of three permanent female police officers in December of 1915. Police authorities had first started taking female police recruitment seriously when some bright spark realised a woman would find it easier to persuade her ‘fallen’ counterparts to repent and be detained quietly.19 Needless to say, the attempt to get sex workers to give up their trades using female cops was a futile one – partly because there were only three female police officers enlisted for the job, but mostly because many fallen women enjoyed plunging into the mounds of cash they were making too much to repent. Nonetheless, policewomen, although so few in number, chalked up a credible number of arrests. Most prostitutes were indeed less likely to resist arrest from a policewoman, and many of them were brought in quietly.20 This had the police board sitting up and taking notice, hence the employment of three permanent policewomen. But it was only in 1923 when a greater number of women were enrolled as police officers, mostly due to the urging of the archbishop of Cape Town, Bishop Lavis, who advocated that women of all colours and creeds be admitted into the ranks of law enforcement officers.21 It goes without saying that this did little to dent the number of women of all creeds and colours practising the oldest profession in the world.

1 Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Randlords: The Men Who Made South Africa, p. 4.
2 Catherine Knox, Victorian Life at the Cape, 1870–1900 (Cape Town: Fernwood Press, 1992), p. 51.
3 Ibid.
4 Vivian Bickford Smith, Elizabeth van Heyningen and Nigel Worden, Cape Town in the Twentieth Century (Cape Town: David Philip Publishers), p. 39.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid, p. 40.
9 SAL, The Owl, 22 June 1900, pp. 396–397.
10 SAL, The Owl, 12 January 1900, p. 39.ne
11 SAL, The Owl, 25 January 1901, p. 75.
12 CA, CCP 1/3/2, Cape Hansard, Government Debates, p. 170.
13 Ibid., pp. 125–126.
14 SAL, The Owl, 29 June 1900, p. 409.
15 CA, The White Ribbon (Journal of the WCTU), 1915; Karel Schoeman, Only an Anguish to Live Here (Pretoria: Human & Rousseau, 1992), p. 29.
16 Karel Schoeman, Only an Anguish to Live Here, p. 29.
17 SAL, The Owl, 23 November 1900, p. 758.
18 Karel Schoeman, Only an Anguish to Live Here, pp. 23–24.
19 CA, The White Ribbon (Journal of the WCTU), 1915. p. 5.
20 CA, A.1696, Vol. 1/1, ‘Minutes of the Executive Committee Meeting’, 4 October 1906, pp. 3–4.

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