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The African Continent Naturism, Nudism and clothes free living – African Americans and the clothes free community

“Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter” – African Proverb

This is the first in a four-part series of posts about the presence of African-Americans and people of African descent in the clothes free community for Black History Month. This series will look at a brief history of naturism, nudism, and clothes free living in connection with  African-Americans and their participation in the clothes free community. Hopefully, this series will accomplish two things; deepen the awareness of the African American community about the historical practice naturism among people of African ancestry. Also to encourage dialogue between the African-American community and the clothes free community about the lingering limiting factors that impact their participation.

The history

In order to understand the current state of African-Americans and naturism, nudism and clothes free living, we have to look back at the history of naturism, nudity and clothes free life among people from the African continent. With few exceptions most examinations of the history of naturism in the clothes free community start with the Greek culture and its penchant for naked athletic events and recreation. However, if one resists the temptation to see the world through a purely Eurocentric lens, one could make the case that naturism existed on the African continent. For no more complex reasons than geography and climate the African continent was more inclined to have people who were nude, naked or clothes free in daily life.

“Anything from complete nakedness to casual body covering was a lifestyle component from prehistoric times through the Greco-Roman civilizations and into part of the Middle Ages.” Aileen Goodson’s Therapy, Nudity & Joy

According to the XIV Congress of the International Naturist Federation (Agde, France, 1974), naturism is: a way of life in harmony with nature characterised by the practice of communal nudity with the intention of encouraging self-respect, respect for others and for the environment.

While I do not want to suggest that naturism and clothes free living was universally practiced on the African continent, if one uses the definition of naturism from the International Naturist Federation it is fair say that naturism was widely practiced among pre-colonial Africans. Experts in the field, suggest that the start of organized nudism can be traced back to Africa in the practice of sun worship in Egypt. Archeological evidence to that effect goes back as far as 1383 B.C. Modern day home nudists should note the experts say that under the rule of Pharoah Ahken-Aton nudity or wearing the lightest and most transparent clothing was a regular practice in the royal palace.

“They practiced a religion and nudist way of life that was far ahead of their time,” Aileen Goodson’s Therapy, Nudity & Joy

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The colonial cover up

One could also say with a fair degree of accuracy, pre-colonial indigenous peoples of sub-Saharan Africa practiced different levels of social nudity, top free and clothes free living. The practice varied according to tribal customs and culture, gender, and religious beliefs. It would not be overstating the facts to say pre-colonial Africans specifically those in sub-Saharan Africa wore much less clothing, and were more apt to consider nudity, normal than European colonists.

When the European colonists arrived on the continent, the call for indigenous people to cover up came with them. They brought with them European values, custom and norms, that perceived the clothes free cultures of Africa to be an indication of savagery. The practical nature of limited or no clothing was lost on the colonists, who were embarrassed by such “uncivilized and barbaric” ways of living.

Their sad experience was a familiar story of colonialism: that is, cultural genocide, including a compulsory cover-up of naked savages in the name of civilized modesty. Instilling body shame became an essential element in the conversion and control of native peoples.

…European colonial/religious authorities made wearing clothing the most visible sign of subservience to the new order. Body Acceptance: A Brief History of Social Nudity

The difference

While some today would suggest, (see video below) that social nudity is not indigenous to African culture, I think that is not an entirely correct statement. It might be more accurate to say that social nudity as practiced by modern European and western cultures, was not a part of the pre-colonial African cultural landscape. It is prudent here to make the distinction between social nudism, nude recreation and naturism. Making this distinction, once again using the definition from the International Federation, it would be a valid point to say that prior to colonialism on the African continent, social nudism or nude recreation was not necessary.

It could be said that social nudity is a First World European problem.

Naturism, living, working and functioning in community clothes free, was just a natural everyday aspect of life on the African continent, especially sub-Saharan Africa. This writer believes that the advent of colonials’ powers with their Europeans values and norms of dress initiated a shift away from the “naturist” way of life by most if not all the tribal people of Africa. It is also this writer’s opinion that the legacy of this shift continues to impact the participation of African-Americans in the clothes free community today. We will take that up in the next post in this series.

Africa’s naked tribe – not the one you think

Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

About the author: Earl D
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11 thoughts on “The African Continent Naturism, Nudism and clothes free living – African Americans and the clothes free community

  1. From the colonial period. The battles of the New Zealand Wars in the Waikato were closely covered by the press. It was recorded that the Maori troops who fought against the Colonial and British forces were naked, this expressed in a way to denigrate Maori. What was of particular and more pressing concern was, however, the fighting ability of Maori.( “Daily Southern Cross”, 30 July 1861, ”Canterbury Press”, 16 April, 1864.) Fighting naked was in fact the practice of Maori, not that the settlers would have known that.

    An account of Maori nudity in combat, immediately before the colonial period, is contained in “Old New Zealand” by Frederick Edward Manning, published in 1863. The following excerpt was printed in the “Daily Southern Cross” of 14 February 1863 and describes Maori troops about to enter into a fight. “The men are all equipped for immediate action, that is to say , quite naked, except their arms and cartridge boxes, which are the warriors’ clothes…. As I have said, the men are all stripped for action. But I notice that the appearance of nakedness is completely taken away by the tattooing, the colour of the skin, and the arms and equipments. The men in fact look much better than when dressed their Maori clothing [European garments]”.

    The Hauhau or Pai Marire , were a Maori religious movement active in Maori opposition to British colonialisation between 1865 and 1868 and combined elements of traditional beliefs including nudity with an interpretation of the Old Testament. A document explaining Hauhau beliefs in Maori seized by the Colonial forces in 1867 refers to Maori “standing in a state of nudity” and are the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” (“Daily Southern Cross”, 26 April 1867). Te Kooti [a Maori leader] is often associated with the Hauhau but this not the case, though it is known the some of Te Kooti’s guerrilla force were Pai Marire. Both troops were naked in the Maori tradition. (“ Otago Witness”, 30 June 1866 for the Hauhau. “Daily Southern Cross”, 16 January 1869 for Te Kooti’s forces.) There was a major fight involving Te Kooti’s forces in 1868 which led to Te Kooti being forced into the Ureweras. Skirmishes with Te Kooti continued to 1872. In 1883 he was pardoned. In 1885 there was a huge gathering of Maori outside Napier at a place known as Petane with the purpose of welcoming Te Kooti. According to the press reporter he was received at the river by the Petane natives, stark naked, who then gave haka in the original way. (“North Otago Times”, 24 December 1885) Te Kooti founded the Ringatu Church.

    Reports of Maori nudity are of male nudity. But in 1866 the press reported a strange case from Port Waikato involving one Maraea Rangingu who has been running about in a state of nudity who was sentenced to be detained at the Auckland Lunatic Asylum. (“Southern Cross”, 16 July 1866).

    In 1867 there was huge gathering of Maori at Wairoa. A grand gala day was organised. After the exhibition of military tactics had ended the Wairoa Maori divested themselves of all clothing and commenced a haka. The return haka was given by the guests from Nuhaka, Te Mahia, Turanga (Gisborne) and the East Cape. From the description of the journalist the hakas were naked in the fullness of the tradition. On the next day the whole body marched to Hatepe, and with some other tribes formed a column 4-5 a breast and 600 yards in length. A rough guess would indicate the total strength of 2500-3000 troops. On nearing the pah they stripped themselves of clothing and advanced in a state of nudity where they were met in a like manner by the Hauhau leader Te Waru and his people. Then ensured a series of war dances and haka. (“Southern Cross”, 30 April 1867).

    The “Taranaki Herald” reported an incident involving Tuta Nihiniho in Gisborne of a naked haka involving Nihoniho and his “whole hapu” with fire-arms being discharged. (11 July 1879)

    In 1895 two correspondents for the “Hawera & Normandy Star” visited Te Whiti’s settlement at Parihaka (at south Taranaki) and witnessed several naked haka between the followers of the Te Whiti and someone described as his rival known as Tohu Kakahi. On their way in, they reported that the “road before us appeared thronged with natives attired much as Adam might have been after the Fall”. (2 March 1895)

    The same newspaper reported of the activities of Paora Eta in 1880 who had set up a religious cult in the Wairarapa in which his followers, “men and women bathed perfectly naked in a stream each morning” as a religious rite “believing they would be cured of all diseases by doing so.” (19 May 1880)

    According to the “Waikato Times” of 25 March 1882, quoting the “Auckland Star”, “the haka in a state of absolute nudity” was being performed at Ohinemutu (now part of Rotorua) and for money.

    A story carried by several newspapers in 1892 concerned the description of a trip by canoe down the Whanganui River, a sort of travelogue. The party seems to have been made up of European (Pakeha) and Maori. In the “Otago Witness” of 2 June 1892 the reporter refers to himself taking a mid-day bath at Athens. His guide was not so concerned about where he swam “and plunged in from the canoe, as did the girl. The natives seems to bath a good deal, and are not very particular about securing privacy , though the girls usually retain a garment at least when bathing near the village. As we passed several villages we saw lots of lads playing in the water … and sometimes girls, who modestly crouched down while we glided past.” The “Taranaki Herald” of 6 June 1892 carried a further account. The reporter describes the scene as they are about to embark on the second day : ”small canoes are darting about, dexterously managed by naked boys, bronze figures in action, some wading the river chin deep, and near the bank small girls bathing, being actually clothed in bathing dresses. I wonder what the old Tory Maori think of this innovation.”

  2. RT – That is exactly the point the indigenous people we forced out of their natural “God given” state to conform to different cultural values. Something that still goes on in some circles today. Fortunately some group like National Geographic and other have realized to negative impact of their actions.

  3. Maori in Aotearoa/New Zealand have a similar tradition of nudity. The war haka, or peruperu was performed naked, as was warfare itself. There were phallic implications in this. British missionaries equated public nudity with licentious behaviour and gross indecency and were shocked at the naked haka and sought to stop it. In day to day life girls were naked to puberty, there was no restriction on boys. Communal gardens were worked naked, as was the task of hauling logs from the forest to build waka. Maori had no working clothes, and a narrow definition of nudity. In males this was the exposure of the glans of the penis. Women wore flax skirts. Waka taua appear to have been crewed naked. A report from 1827 refers to a small European craft apparently pulling aside a large ocean going waka taua moving at great speed : their attention being drawn to shouts and chants and being shocked to discover the occupants were all naked and were fully readied for battle. ( Waka means Maori canoe or vessel. Taua means war. Taua could also mean war party. Waka taua could be also translated as a vessel carrying a war party). In the original powhiri (welcome), the males would be naked. In “New Zealanders illustrated” ,1844 George French Angas recorded the throwing of the spear ceremony at Matata pa, part of the powhiri. The ceremonial spear throwing outside a pa, involved the visiting party and the hosts and was conducted naked. Angas’s painting shows three naked males who would have been chiefs. The leader of the pa is shown in the process of throwing. His status is determined by his extensive buttock tattoo. To his left in the party of guests stand the two chiefs of the visiting people, also with extensive buttock tattoos.The tide in Maoridom does appear to be turning. A trend has been for males who are already bare chested in kapa haka groups (competitive haka) to wear less : the buttocks are often exposed. In contrast women are still fully clothed. Moko are coming gradually back into fashion and certain Maori tattoo designs are popular amongst non-Maori. In time we can expect to see the peruperu as it was originally.

    1. Gerald thank you for sharing this rich bit of information. I am particularly intrigued at the notion that even the leaders were to be found naked. Such a contrast to the European standard of the time which would not see a leader naked in public. It seems that idea of civilization stripped the Maori of their natural way of life. I have seen some evidence on social media that a pair people are reclaiming that legacy as  you shared. Good for them. Time for indigenous peoples to shed their colonial constraints and relclqimmclothes free life!

  4. That’s interesting. I k ow within the African American community, talking about being a naturist is going to be something that’s hard to do. Our people are so disconnected with our culture, our real culture from our country. We’ve always been naked until Europeans came in. I can’t believe how we have come to take more value in our clothes, shoes and material things we put on our bodies, than our actual bodies itself. I absolutely positively resent clothing. I love my body and I believe it’s beautiful. Whoever said that being naked was wrong? How can it be wrong when it feels so right, natural, freeing and pure? I would like to contribute a post on how it feels to be a naturist at heart, trapped in clothing.

    1. Thanks for the comment at the conclusion of this series, I will put forward some ways to address what you have identified. Much the value of clothing embedded in the African American community is a result of oppression of African culture as a result of slavery and the necessity to adopt to survive. We want to do our part to help conscious folks to reclaim the heritage.

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