Dr Will Jackson

Dr Will Jackson

Associate Professor of Imperial History; Director of Postgraduate Research

0113 343 8546

Summary: Imperial history; Settler colonial history; African history; Decolonisation; History of the Emotions; History of Psychiatry

I work on – loosely termed – ‘the private lives’ of British imperialism. My first book was a study of the white insane in colonial Kenya; I am currently working on a number of related projects related to failure and the family in Southern Africa. I am interested in the emotional history of empire: how ideas about race, nation and empire get lived experientially and the ways in which the perennial features of human experience – birth, growth, aging and decline; friendship, estrangement, love and loss – all shape and are shaped by historical context. Most of my research is on the English speaking settler societies in Africa from the late nineteenth century to the present day. I am currently working on my second book, tentatively titled Lost Colonists: Settler Failure in Southern Africa, 1880-1939, as a way to explore the possibilities for writing a history of settler colonialism through the life cycle, the making and maturing of intimate relations; and the seemingly interior dynamics of thought and feeling. I have a side interest in Britain and decolonisation and, besides courses on settlers in Africa, I also teach on the social and cultural legacies of empire in Britain, Europe and America today.

Current projects

Race, Respectability and the Family in Segregation-era Cape Town

This project uses the voluminous records of Cape Town’s Society for the Protection of Child Life to build an ethnographic history from below: of childhood, the family and the making of the racial self in pre-apartheid South Africa. Working with Cape Town’s CID, officers of the Society investigated tens of thousands of cases of children being raised in what were judged to be undesirable circumstances. Typically, these entailed not merely poverty or what we might recognise today as neglect or abuse but a range of phenomena problematic only in a developing racial state. The Society’s attempts to restructure family life provided a crucial (perhaps the crucial) forum for the moulding of racial subjectivities and the reinstatement of social boundaries of respectability, gender, morality and class.

Lost Colonists: Settler Failure in Southern Africa, 1880-1939

This project challenges the assumption of success in much of the historiography of settler colonialism by investigating the meaning of failure in Southern Africa from the mineral revolution to the Second World War. Building on recent work on colonial migration, the control of ‘poor whites’ and the colonial family, the project aims to tell the story of empire’s ‘other’ whites as far as is possible on their own terms. The resulting book will seek to foreground histories of failure and distress, repatriation and return, desertion and divorce and senility and old age. Using the case records of the Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital, the Society for the Protection of Child Life and the many petitions for help submitted to the South African Governor General, the book is intended to humanise and (de)familiarise the figure of the British imperialist abroad. 

Racial Transgression in the British World, 1880-1939

This three year, AHRC funded project adapts the sociological concepts of deviance and boundary transgression to the historical study of empire. Based on archival research in Britain, Australia and South Africa, the project has produced an edited collection with Dr. Emily Manktelow of the University of Kent (Subverting Empire: Deviance and Disorder in the British World, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and two international conferences, held at the University of Cape Town in November 2014 and the University of Sydney in April 2015.


‘An Unmistakable Trace of Colour: Racializing Children in Segregation-era Cape Town, 1908-1933’, Past and Present, forthcoming.

(with Nicola Ginsburgh), ‘Settler Societies’ in Charles Ambler et al (eds.), The Blackwell Handbook to African History (Blackwell, forthcoming: 2017)

‘The Settler’s Demise? Decolonisation and Mental Breakdown in Kenya Colony’ in Harald Fischer-Tiné (ed.), Anxieties, Fear and Panic in Colonial Settings: Empires on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)

 ‘Kenya, 1890-1963’ in Lorenzo Veracini and Ed Cavanagh (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of the History of  Settler Colonialism (Routledge, 2016)


 ‘Unsettled states: madness and migration in Cape Town, c. 1920’ in Marjory Harper, ed., Migration and Mental Illness: Past and Present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) 

‘Not seeking certain proof: Inter-racial sex and archival haze in high-imperial Natal’ in Will Jackson and Emily Manktelow (eds.), Subverting Empire: Deviance and Disorder in the British World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

(with Emily Manktelow), ‘Introduction: Thinking with Deviance’ in Will Jackson and Emily Manktelow (eds.), Subverting Empire: Deviance and Disorder in the British World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Madness and Marginality: The Lives of Kenya’s White Insane (Manchester University Press, 2013)

‘Poor men and loose women: the Poor White Problem in Kenya Colony’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History (14, 2, 2013)

‘Bad Blood: Poverty, Psychopathy and the Politics of Transgression in Kenya Colony’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 39, 1 (2011)

‘White Man’s Country: The Making of a Myth’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 5, 2 (2011)

Recent conference and seminar papers

An unmistakable touch of colour: character, class and the racialization of children in 1920s Cape Town, Southern African Historical Association, Stellenbosch, July 2015

Nimrod Reduced: Parody, pathos and the elderly imperialist in Southern Africa, 1880-1914, University of Sydney, April 2015

She is almost a black woman but appears sensible and kind: Racial Transgression and the Family in 1920s Cape Town, University of Cape Town, November 2015

Mutating Babies: Child Rescue and Racial Mutation in Interwar Cape Town, University of Leeds, October 2014

Intimacy in Desperate Straits: Child Welfare in Interwar Cape Town, University of Kent, July 2014

Poor Whites, Failed Whites, Nativised Whites: Deviance and Distress in the British World, University of Warwick, March 2014


Britain and Decolonisation: From the Western Front to the Present Day (Level 2)

White Africans: Intimate Histories from the Settler Colony (Level 3 Special Subject)

After Lives of Empire: A History of the Present (Level 3, 20 credits)

Africa and the Anglophone World: A Cultural History (Level 4)