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An Appeal for African Scouts: Canon William Palmer to Imperial Scout Headquarters


Almost immediately after learning of Baden Powell's creation of the Boy Scout Movement in 1907, the leaders of African and ethnically mixed communities (known as "Coloureds" in South Africa) began to found their own informal scout troops. The South African scout authorities refused to recognize these unsanctioned troops as scouts on the grounds that Afrikaner boys would not join a multi-racial organization. But they also worried that the general public would not be able to tell the difference between African boys dressed as scouts and "real" scouts. The South African Scout Association therefore insisted that non-European boys could only belong to a separate "Pathfinder movement" that was under its control but wore a distinctly different uniform.

European teachers, missionaries, and church leaders like Canon Palmer sponsored most of these Pathfinder troops at African and Coloured schools. While Palmer makes an impassioned plea for the Imperial Scout Headquarters to recognize the Pathfinders as Scouts in pointing out its failure to live up to its own rhetoric of equality, he did not call for the admission of Africans, Coloureds, and Indians to European scout troops. During this period, "liberal" South Africans like Palmer tended to believe that Africans were inherently backwards and still unprepared to enter the "modern" world on equal terms. Instead of calling for equal rights for all South Africans, they strove to ensure that Africans received fair treatment in a segregated society. Liberals like Palmer believed that a "civilizing" form of adapted scouting like the Pathfinder movement would help prepare Africans for full citizenship at some point in the undefined future.

This source is a part of the African Scouting (20th c.) teaching module.


The Boy Scouts Association
Imperial Headquarters
25 Buckingham Palace Road
London, S.W. 1

5 May 1923

Dear Sir,

This College is the training College for English Church boys (native and coloured) for the whole of the Transvaal and so far back as 1915, the present Bishop of St. Alban's, who was then Bishop of Pretoria, encouraged the idea of the formation of Native Scouts in connection with this College, which would spread eventually to other educational centers in the Diocese. For some time the proposal hung fire, mainly because we were handicapped during the war in the matter of staff; but after the war we were fortunate enough to get on our staff two keen experienced Scoutmasters, the Rev. S. P. Woodfield and Mr. W. E. Wilkinson, who took the matter up with enthusiasm. When, however, we applied to the Transvaal Scout Association in Johannesburg, a meeting was summoned in which we were told courteously, but quite plainly, that not for any reason whatsoever would we be allowed to call ourselves scouts, be affiliated to the Association as scouts, or wear the scout badge— and this, simply because our boys were BLACK— that was all. . . . We were allowed to affiliate ourselves as Pathfinders on condition that we did not wear the same uniform or badge, or call ourselves Scouts. I am not a member of the Association, and so appalled was I at the flagrant breach of what I considered the fundamental principle of Brotherhood that I was for leaving the whole things alone and starting an independent [scout] association, but the two scoutmasters, on the principle that at all costs it was vital to come under the control of the [British] Imperial [Scout] Headquarters, accepted what to me was a compromise of the Johannesburg [scout] executive steeped in racialism and colour prejudice.

Now, to our amazement, we find that our Association "cannot come under the jurisdiction of the Imperial Headquarters:" the only advantage we have apparently is affiliation with the Transvaal authorities of Boy Scouts, the body which has made no secret of its determination not to admit into the brotherhood of Scouts, the black and half-caste boy. To me, the ineptitude and shortsightedness of the whole thing is amazing. Our Native students went overseas; our Coloured Corps did most wonderful work during the [First World] War, but simply and solely because of the Colour prejudice their children are excluded from an Association whose first principles are of Brotherhood. Chinese and Japanese boys may be Scouts, but not boys living as an integral part of the British Empire. . . . The result is that all over South Africa, associations of Native Scouts are being formed – having no connection with any central organisation whatsoever. The native boy today sees the illustrated papers and knows that all over the world, irrespective of colour, boys are being enrolled as Scouts. His racial self-consciousness is one of the most marked features of South African life today. Is he likely to be satisfied with an Association having no connection with the great body of world Scouts, and admittedly based on colour prejudice of the most pronounced type, or to be deprived of the right to wear officially a uniform which he knows other black boys in Africa are wearing with credit, and full relationship with the Headquarters at home?

I fully appreciate the difficulties of the Scout Headquarters in Johannesburg; South Africa is full of racial prejudice, but I should have thought that the object of the Scout Association was to create an atmosphere in which racial prejudice cannot thrive, and not help to perpetuate it.

I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your obedient servant,

Reverend Canon William A. Palmer
Principal of the Pretoria Diocesan College
Director of Native Missions in the Diocese of Pretoria


Palmer, William A. to The Boy Scouts Association Imperial Headquarters. May 5, 1923. South African Institute of Race Relations, University of Witwatersrand. Annotated by Tim Parsons.

How to Cite This Source

"An Appeal for African Scouts: Canon William Palmer to Imperial Scout Headquarters," in World History Commons, [accessed February 22, 2024]