Elizabeth Thornberry

Elizabeth Thornberry

Associate Professor

Gilman 338E
Monday and Wednesday, 1:30-2:30 p.m.

Research Interests: History of gender, sexuality, empire, and law in Southern Africa and across the continent

Education: PhD, Stanford University

I am a historian of South Africa, with research and teaching interests in the history of gender, sexuality, empire, and law in Southern Africa and across the continent. My first book, Colonizing Consent: Rape and Governance in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, is both a social history of sexual violence and an examination of the deep links between sexual and political authority in the Eastern Cape region, from the late precolonial period through the triumph of segregationism. The book draws on records of more than a thousand court cases, from criminal, civil, customary, and ecclesiastical courts. I read court records as sites of vernacular debates about political legitimacy during the period of colonization, and show how competing political ideologies confronted each other on the terrain of female sexuality—with, too often, devastating consequences for women themselves.

I am currently writing my second book, provisionally titled Imagining African Law: Black Intellectuals and the Politics of Custom in South Africa, 1880-1927. This project traces debates over the meaning of “native law and custom” among a range of black intellectuals in South Africa in the decades leading up to the passage of the Native Administration Act. My research for this project seeks to recuperate a lost set of imagined futures for customary law, and in doing so, to intervene in contemporary debates over the place of customary law in the post-apartheid era. As in my first project, I am particularly interested in questions of gender and sexuality, which have long been central to debates over custom in South Africa.

My research has been supported by the Fulbright Institute of International Education, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Shelby Cullom Davis Center at Princeton University. Before coming to Johns Hopkins, I taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY.

I welcome applications from potential graduate students in modern African history, and from those with interests in transnational histories of law, gender, sexuality, and empire.

I have recently completed the manuscript for my first book, Colonizing Consent: Rape and Governance in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, 1820-1927. The book narrates the intertwined histories of sexual violence and popular politics during the period of colonization. In the book, I explore the ways in which sexual consent and political consent helped to constitute each other across a range of ideologies, including precolonial theories of customary rule, missionary Christianity, imperial liberalism, and racial nationalism.

My current research project is a history of customary law in South Africa during the decade following the South African War (1902-1912). During this period, as the four separate colonies prepared to merge into the Union of South Africa, the place of customary law in the white-ruled state emerged as a crucial problem for colonial administrators and African intellectuals alike. My research investigates local debates over the implementation of customary law by the colonial state, seeking to show how the regime of customary law that emerged from this period was shaped by debates within African communities as much as by theories of paternalism and segregation. 

Although my research focuses primarily on South Africa, one of my primary intellectual commitments is in situating South African history within the history of the African continent. I maintain an ongoing interest in comparative and transnational research in gender, sexuality, empire, and law across the continent.

Courses currently taught include:

Graduate: South African History and Historiography, Historiography of Law and Empire

Undergraduate: History of Africa (from 1880), Race and Power in Modern South Africa, Law and Custom in Colonial Africa

“Rape, Race, and Respectability in a South African Port City: East London, 1870-1927,” Journal of Urban History (September 2016).

“Ukuthwala, Forced Marriage, and the Idea of Custom in South Africa’s Eastern Cape,” in Anne Bunting, Benjamin Lawrance, and Richard Roberts, eds. Marriage by Force? Contestation Over Consent and Coercion, Ohio University Press (2016).

“Virginity Testing, History, and the Nostalgia for Custom in Contemporary South Africa,” African Studies Review 58:3 (December 2015), 129-148.

“Punishing ‘Crime’ in the Eastern Cape: Sexual Violence ca. 1835-1902,” Journal of Southern African Studies 37:3 (September 2011), 415-430.

“Sex, Violence, and Family in South Africa’s Eastern Cape,” in Emily Burrill, Richard Roberts, and Elizabeth Thornberry, eds., Domestic Violence and the Law in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, Ohio University Press (2010).