SEX IN THE ARCHIVES: a guide to the major documentary source on the early modern history of male-male sexuality in Zimbabwe

by Marc Epprecht

My book Hungochani draws significantly upon a trove of documents preserved in the Zimbabwe National Archives (ZNA) in Harare. These are contained within the voluminous records of the criminal court system from 1891 to 1932. Each case that came before the courts – from murder to misdemeanour – generated a docket full of the details from the original charge to the final judgement. None of this material, however, was catalogued or indexed, so the search to find cases involving same-sex sexual crimes required systematically going through each and every case on file (tens of thousands of them), physically inspecting for evidence of same-sex content. It took many months to find and extract all those cases, in total just over four hundred. It was from these cases that I constructed my main arguments around the changing ways that men and boys from around the region understood and expressed same-sex desire under the emerging racial capitalist system.

Many of the basic controversies and debates around same-sex sexuality in Zimbabwe, and indeed much of Africa, have still not been resolved. Given the growing interest in archives, and particularly in deciphering colonial-era documents, I decided to revisit my notes as a tool for the next generation of scholars. What follows is a guide to the results of my research, in effect, an annotated catalogue to most recorded cases of male-male sexual crime over roughly forty, formative years. The notes here can be used as data in and of themselves (allegations and defences, names and ages, “tribes,” geographical places, sentencing and more in some instances) or as a reference tool to quickly find the original files in the ZNA to retrieve the whole testimony in cases of special interest.

Many biases and blindspots were structured into the ways that archives were created. Women who have sex with women, for example, are virtually non-existent in the documentary records prior to the 1960s in southern Africa. Court records by their nature meanwhile rarely capture cases of loving, faithful, happy relationships. In the documents that did survive, there are translation questions, cultural misunderstandings, and clearly racist presumptions by court officials about Africans. There were also likely cases of deliberate censorship including destruction of evidence that was embarrassing to court officials, the original archivist and their employer or friends. Much has been written on how to “read against the grain” of such silences and distortions, and to use the archives in ways that can promote democracy. My hope is that this publication can help in that project.