Teaching Module

African Scouting (20th c.)


Conceived by General Sir Robert Baden Powell to reduce class tensions in early 20th-century Britain, the Boy Scout movement evolved into an international youth movement that offered a romantic program of vigorous outdoor life for boys and adolescents as a cure for the physical decline and social disruption caused by industrialization and urbanization. One of scouting's main goals was to create social stability by dealing with the complex problem of adolescence. Every generation fears that the generation that comes after it will not respect its rules, values, and division of property. As a uniformed and disciplined youth organization, the Scout movement taught young males in the difficult years between childhood and adulthood to respect older generations and accept their place in society. By the 1920s most of the nations of the world had embraced the movement as a way to teach young people to be loyal to the state and respect their elders. While governments worldwide utilized scouting to reinforce political and social authority, such was not the case in colonial Africa where marginalized groups and social outsiders used scouting to challenge dominant institutions.

Scouting began in 1907 with Robert Baden-Powell's creation of a youth organization aimed at promoting physical, moral, and imperial fitness among British youth by capitalizing on their fascination with "frontier woodcraft" and "tribal" life. He incorporated these elements into scouting in order to inspire young Britons to emulate what he interpreted to be the most praiseworthy aspects of African life. A diverse and eclectic mix of tribal peoples that included Amerindians, Arab Bedouins, and New Zealand Maoris served as inspirations for the movement, but Africans occupied a central place in Baden Powell's thinking. A 20-year career fighting colonial wars made him a self-proclaimed expert on "tribal" cultures, which he claimed to have incorporated into the scout movement.

At first, Baden-Powell did not have a specific ideology for scouting. But eventually several key themes emerged in his thinking and became the central core of the scout creed. Concerned that urban slums and vice were undermining British security, he aimed to prepare younger generations to defend their nation and empire. Just as life on the imperial frontier taught virility, resourcefulness, and self-control, scouting was a "school of the woods" that would instill these same ideals in British youth. By adopting the values and discipline of "tribal" peoples, scouting would teach the vital manly qualities that consumerism and materialism had drained away from "civilized" western society.

Similarly, Baden Powell also believed that class tensions led to national weakness. He therefore envisioned scouting as a way to teach working-class boys to accept their place in society by stressing obedience, discipline, and simplicity. This helps to explain the Fourth Scout Law: "A Scout is a Brother to every other Scout." Baden Powell never intended for this brotherhood to lead to social equality; rather it was a sense of fraternity in scouting that would defuse social tensions by reducing friction between rich and poor boys.

In the tense years before World War One, the movement's critics charged that scouting secretly prepared young men for military service. Baden Powell emphatically denied the charge, and after the war he recast scouting as an international peace movement. More significantly, he also acknowledged that non-Europeans could also be scouts and gave his blessing to administrators and educators who introduced scouting throughout the empire to teach imperial loyalty, encourage African and Asian students to accept their place in colonial society, and reduce the political and social friction that came with foreign imperial rule. By the inter-war era, colonial administrators and educators had begun to fear that student unrest, urban migration, and juvenile delinquency were products of a growing social crisis in local African communities. British administrators relied on local allies and chiefs to govern the African majority, and they worried that the younger generation's rejection of their elders' authority threatened widespread political and social instability.

The Boy Scout movement promised to correct this imbalance by teaching students and city boys to respect colonial authority throughout the continent. In French-speaking Africa, Baptist missionaries in the Belgian Congo tried to substitute scouting for secret male initiation ceremonies, which they considered immoral, while Catholic educators sought to use the movement to train "Christian knights" to assist in converting the wider African population. Similarly, in the French colonies the authorities tried to use scouting to train a small African elite that would help them control the rest of colonial society.

In eastern and southern Africa, British officials claimed that the authority of their African allies stemmed from "tribal tradition." But they also introduced western schooling to train the young Africans to help run the colonies and to demonstrate that they were "civilizing" their "primitive" subjects. The scout movement never achieved a mass African following, but it targeted the students, juvenile delinquents, and urban migrants that were the greatest threat to British rule. Colonial educators and administrators worried that these "detribalized" Africans were politically dangerous, particularly when they flaunted "tribal tradition" and aspired to live a western lifestyle alongside European settlers. The colonial authorities turned to scouting to "retribalize" African adolescents by teaching them to remain in the countryside and accept the authority of their "native chiefs." Ironically, they looked to scouting to teach African boys how to be "tribal."

Yet Africans also used scouting to claim the rights of full citizenship. They invoked the Fourth Scout Law, which declared a scout was a brother to every other scout, to challenge racial discrimination. Rather than making colonialism run more smoothly, then, scouting offered African boys a way to resist the discriminatory laws and social barriers that made them second-class citizens. Rejecting the authority of official colonial scout associations, they formed their own unauthorized troops to claim the power and legitimacy of the scout movement for themselves. Scouting was thus both an instrument of colonial authority and a subversive challenge to the legitimacy of the British Empire. The African Scout experience thus demonstrated how marginalized groups and social outsiders could use the movement to challenge these very same institutions.

Baden Powell would have been dismayed by how these independent troops twisted and reinterpreted the scout canon to demand rights, respect, and eventually independence. In Kenya, some African troops ventured into politics during the early 1950s by supporting the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion, which was essentially a civil war between landless Kikuyu young men and the wealthy Kikuyu chiefs and landowners who were allied with the British colonial regime. While some African boys who wanted to join the movement illegally acquired uniforms they donned, others used scout clothing to exploit the colonial authorities' assumption that they were trustworthy. Dressed as scouts, they could travel more freely about the colony and were often able to collect money for "scout" activities. Scouting thus simultaneously bolstered colonial authority and challenged the legitimacy of the British Empire.

Despite the challenges they posed during the 1950s, most territorial scout associations in Africa grew and prospered by allying with the colonial authorities. European scout leaders demonized African nationalists and were caught by surprise when these men came to power after independence in the early 1960s. It seemed likely that the movement's close ties to British imperialism would lead to its demise in post-colonial Africa, but the Africans who inherited control of the scout associations reinterpreted the scout canon to transfer their loyalty to the new nationalist regimes. The survival of scouting in the nationalist era thus demonstrates that the movement's vulnerability to re-interpretation by outsiders was also one of its great strengths. Once the new lines of political authority were clear, the scout associations made African nationalist regimes the focus of their second law ("A Scout is Loyal"). Even modern South African scouting, which lost popular African support for its unwillingness to challenge apartheid, has successfully reinvented itself as a force for economic and social development in the new South Africa.

How to Cite This Source

"African Scouting (20th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #95, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/95 (accessed August 10, 2021).