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Anthropological Perspectives on the Processes of Colonialism

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In The Empire’ s Old Clothes: Fashioning the Colonial Subject, Jean Comaroff discusses one of the colonial processes that fall under Pels’ second description of the anthropological view of colonialism: clothing. Clothes have always been a basic human need, but until the start of the colonial era, there was no common standard used to determine the type and number of clothes a human being should wear. In the modern era, clothing is a major component of ethnographic studies; this was not the case before the colonial period. For example, prior to the advent of colonialism, the Tswana peoples of Southern Africa wore minimalist clothing that left them mostly naked (Comaroff & Comaroff 2009: 20).

In reality, they were not in desperate need of better clothes because their culture made them feel comfortable in their ways. British colonialists used clothing as a platform for commoditizing the Tswana community by creating the impression that acceptable attire had to be bought, not fashioned out of basic materials and worn (Comaroff & Comaroff 2009: 21). In addition, the Tswana were compelled to move away from a liberalized way of dressing to a one-dimensional style that was restricted to suit colonialists’ commercial interests.

From having free clothes that they could make and repair with basic tools, the Tswana were forced to acquire British currency and use it to purchase clothes (Comaroff & Comaroff 2009: 23). This was a purposeful and specific strategy used to enslave and rule an indigenous people under the pretext of civilization and is congruent with Pels’ claim that anthropology perceives the processes of colonialism to be a deliberately exploitative and interfering endeavor. According to Comaroff and Comaroff (2009: 21), “ mission activities suggested that, at least in the Christian culture, clothedness was next to godliness: it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the ill-clad to enter the Kingdom of God. ” This shows that the Tswana were compelled by colonialists and missionaries promoting the colonial agenda to abandon their traditional dress sense and follow a foreign, industrially-inspired identity.

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