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This article examines the categorical problem that persons of ‘mixed-race’ background presented to British administrations in eastern, central and southern Africa during the late 1920s and 1930s. Tracing a discussion regarding the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ from an obscure court case in Nyasaland (contemporary Malawi) in 1929, to the Colonial Office in London, to colonial governments in eastern, central and southern Africa, this article demonstrates a lack of consensus on how the term ‘native’ was to be defined, despite its ubiquitous use. This complication arrived at a particularly crucial period when indirect rule was being implemented throughout the continent. Debate centered largely around the issue of racial descent versus culture as the determining factor. The ultimate failure of British officials to arrive at a clear definition of the term ‘native’, one of the most fundamental terms in the colonial lexicon, is consequently suggestive of both the potential weaknesses of colonial state formation and the abstraction of colonial policy vis-à-vis local empirical conditions. Furthermore, this case study compels a rethinking of contemporary categories of analysis and their historical origins.
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