Jack Johnson and Africa: Boxing and Race in Colonial Africa

Champion Jack Johnson at wheel of his 90 horse power Thomas Flyer, 1910 (Library of Congress).

Jack Johnson never set foot in Africa, but the circulation of his images was heavily censored and sometimes prohibited in colonial South Africa.1 Johnson’s triumph to become the first African American to win the world heavyweight title upended ideas of white racial superiority which were central to how societies around the world were organized. Within the United States, there was violence with many arguing that Black people had to be reminded of their place in society. Ideas about white racial superiority were therefore difficult to sustain in a world in which a Black man was the world heavyweight champion. For many Black people within the United States and beyond, Johnson became a folk hero

In colonial Africa, boxing was a popular sport among African men working in colonial urban centers. From Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa to colonial Zimbabwe, boxing was a widely popular pastime. Compared to other sports such as cricket and soccer, which became popular within the British empire, boxing was different. Violence and combat were central to the sport. The Queensberry rules of boxing sanitized the sport and created a universal code of conduct for boxers. Among the many taboos which were frowned upon included hitting a man when he was down or hitting below the belt. The Queensberry rules of boxing were considered sacrosanct, they set the sport apart from street brawls, they made the sport “noble.” Colonial settlers in Zimbabwe believed the sport could be weaponized for purposes of social control as long as its conventions and norms were observed.

From the mid 1930s, colonial officials discovered that the Queensberry rules were not always observed. Colonial officials argued that Africans had corrupted boxing and emptied the sport of all meaning. African boxers used indigenous “medicines” and performance enhancing substances which colonial officials dismissed as superstitious nonsense. Although colonial officials considered these “medicines” as superstitions, they still had to deal with the actions of African boxers who openly defied colonial authority, believing that the “medicines” protected them and made them invincible. Expressing his displeasure about a performance enhancing substance widely used by boxers, known locally as mangoromera, the Native Welfare Officer remarked that “the substance gave Africans exaggerated opinions of themselves.” Attempts to police and control boxing in colonial Zimbabwe eventually led to colonial administrators leaning on South Africa for advice and guidance on how best to regulate the sport. 

South Africa’s relationship to colonial Zimbabwe on boxing must be understood within the broader context of prominent Black boxers around the world and the racial politics of boxing in the 20th century. In 1954, South Africa updated the Boxing Act of 1912 which became known as the Wrestling and Boxing Control Act of 1954.2 Within a space of two years, colonial Zimbabwe passed a similarly named law, the Wrestling and Boxing Control Act of 1956.3 The two laws were identical, literally word for word. Both laws tightened regulations on African participation in boxing and formally outlawed interracial boxing fights. The passage of the Wrestling and Boxing Control Act in Zimbabwe paved the way for the establishment of the Rhodesia Boxing Board of Control. The board had broad powers that were so loosely defined such that a boxing match could be suspended and the board did not need to provide justification for such actions. All the board needed to do was declare that a match “was not in the public interest” for it to be suspended or canceled. 

There were also circumstances within colonial Zimbabwe and South Africa which prompted tighter control of African boxing. At boxing matches in colonial Zimbabwe African men socialized with acquaintances, they drank African brewed beer and smoked marijuana. Within the ring, boxers danced and sat on top of their opponents. These were considered serious violations of boxing and sporting protocol. Ultimately, colonial control of boxing intersected with other forms of state control which prohibited the use of “unscientific medicines” and the presence of African women in urban centers.

The prevalence of ideas of white racial superiority in boxing made the sport controversial around the world. This was primarily because notions of white racial superiority were convincingly challenged in the ring by Black boxers. In racially segregated societies such colonial Zimbabwe and apartheid South Africa, boxing allowed for Africans to challenge the status quo. The cherished Queensberry rules of boxing were openly defied. The colonial order of things was contested. To shield white bodies from harm at the hands of the colonized, interracial boxing fights were outlawed in the mid-1950s. Interracial boxing fights raised uncomfortable questions about racial hierarchies in settler colonial societies. As a result, legislating against interracial boxing fights became one of the main ways through which boxing in colonial Africa was regulated. 

  1. Theresa Runstedtler, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line, Berkley University of California Press, 2013, p 82.
  2. Wrestling and Boxing Control Act, 1954, National Archives of Zimbabwe (Hereafter NAZ) file S3556/4/T1/31/5.
  3. Wrestling and Boxing Control Act, 1956, NAZ file S3556/4/T1/31/5.
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Abraham Tapiwa Seda

Abraham Tapiwa Seda is a Doctoral candidate in the Department of History at University of Minnesota Twin Cities. His current research project examines how boxing and the boxing ring were appropriated by Africans in colonial Zimbabwe and used as platforms for cultural expression. Using oral and archival sources, his research illuminates how indigenous medicines used by African boxers for performance enhancement came to be seen as subversive by the colonial government. The research project also underscores how ideas of white racial superiority around the world shaped boxing throughout the British empire, leading to colonies such as apartheid South Africa and colonial Zimbabwe co-ordinating to police the sport. Abraham is currently a Pre-Doctoral Fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia.