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Under the microscope

The late nineteenth century division of tropical Africa into regions over which Western European states arrogated rule owed much to the confidence and hubris encouraged by concurrent advances in science.  On the one hand, developments in medicine and hygiene stemming from increased trust in the germ theory of disease promised to moderate health risks for potential settlers.  On the other, several European national and transnational learned societies with commercial as well as scientific interests in Africa’s resources were established and grew rapidly in the period between 1870 and 1890, sponsoring expeditions to the continent’s interior, sometimes with official support. For such groups Africa was the next new world, ripe for ‘civilizing’ and development.  As Helen Tilley notes in her superb and meticulously documented book, “geographical societies made an essential contribution to the conditions that precipitated the scramble for Africa, acting not in isolation but precisely through their intricate connections with economic, diplomatic, and military forces and their myriad intersections with demographic and cultural concerns” (p. 37).  Early optimism that migration to Africa could help offset the negative entailments of population growth in economically depressed Europe (unemployment, crime, fears of ‘racial degeneracy’), combined with the popular belief that tropical Africa contained a wealth of fertile land suitable for intensive agriculture, lent support to the segue from scientific exploration to imperial policy.  In the resulting Berlin Conference of 1885 the rules of Europe’s engagement with ‘Africa’ were set; as knowledge of the continent was still deficient, the encouragement of research was included among its provisions.  As Tilley puts it, “Scientific research had come full circle: previously it had helped to pave the way for empire, and now empire was opening new avenues of science” (p. 55).

Africa as a Living Laboratory demonstrates how science broadly conceived was essential to and deeply implicated in both the initial colonization and continuing management of African dependencies overseen by the British Colonial Office, focusing primarily on Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana. That its insights have wider purchase is clear from the case of pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome, who sponsored and accompanied archaeological excavations to post-conquest Sudan (administered by the Foreign Office), provided Stanley’s 1886-89 Equatoria expedition with a Burroughs Wellcome & Co. ‘tabloid’ medicine chest in a clever blend of advertising and imperial patronage (Bell 2000:58), and gifted Gordon College in Khartoum with stores and furnishings for chemical and bacteriological research to found the Wellcome Research Laboratories (WRL) in 1903 (Bell 2000, Boddy 2007).  The mandate of the WRL was omnivorous: to study and combat tropical diseases of humans and animals in Sudan; perform “experimental investigations in poisoning cases … particularly the obscure and potent substances employed by the natives”; conduct chemical and bacteriological tests in relation to water, foods, health and sanitary matters; and “undertake the testing and assaying of agricultural, mineral and other substances of practical interest in the industrial development of the Sudan” (Balfour 1904: 7).  Included on its research team was an anthropologist assigned to measure the physical traits of Southern tribes and collect specimens of their ‘ethnographical objects’ (Waterston 1908, Vallance 1908).   Wellcome joined a chorus of voices proclaiming that science would make, “all Central Africa . . . perfectly habitable for the white man.  Its agricultural, industrial, and commercial resources will become available.  The Niles and their tributaries will teem with the commerce of a numerous and happy people” (‘In Search of Microbes’, Daily Mail 25th August, 1906).

In discussing the problematic implementation of such views, Tilley shows how several domains of knowledge were forged, established, challenged, and profoundly changed through their practitioners’ African encounters, and organizes her book around such fields.  Broadly, she describes how researchers in and of tropical Africa helped shift Western epistemologies toward a concern for interrelationship, holism, context, and specificity based on fine-grained studies of endogenous detail. The emergent disciplines of ecology, environmental medicine, and anthropology, in their practical as well as academic forms, were thus tested and refined. Other streams, such as ‘racial psychology’, were challenged and largely discredited. While British colonial states were racial states, Tilley’s research reveals that by the early twentieth century many scientists and politicians had become troubled by “race as a conceptual system for differentiating among human groups” (p. 29, 217-259) as it both failed to fit their observations and was antithetical to the post-WWI imperial mission of economic development in Africa, which assumed a libertarian mien.

As to the structure of the book:  it begins by examining the exponential growth of European geographical societies in the late nineteenth century and how these contributed to making Africa an object of study and a theatre of empire.  Tilley then tackles the tangled story of the African Research Survey, which, after several fits and starts, got underway in the late 1920s and continued to 1939 as a means to take stock of what was known about the British dependencies and the extent to which colonial administrators made use of scientific knowledge in working to develop the regions in their charge. Throughout the continent, the interwar period saw a shift in administrative strategy from management and the consolidation of power towards economic development and the betterment of the population through education and medical intervention – always, however, with an underlying requirement that the colonies pay for themselves.  The challenges of the Africa Research Survey wind thematically through the rest of the book.

In the subsequent four chapters, Tilley examines intersections between nascent academic disciplines and colonial policies, showing how scientific fieldwork in Africa helped establish (or discredit) the former’s status in Britain, often leading to the addition of university positions and departments.  The interactions and maneuverings among British academics and statesmen, and the various institutes and organizations to which they belonged, are portrayed here in lively detail.  The list of luminaries is exhaustive, and includes a host of classic forebears such as Francis Galton, Julian Huxley, Mary Kingsley, Bronislaw Malinowski, Louis Leakey, Jomo Kenyatta, Raymond Firth, Margery Perham, Audrey Richards, Monica Wilson, Max Gluckman, Lucy Mair, and Edward Evans-Pritchard. It is impossible to summarize the considerable scholarship that produced this remarkable book, but anthropologists will be fascinated by Tilley’s analysis of the earlier years of their discipline, if nothing else than for its valuable perspective on the dismissive ‘handmaiden of colonialism’ stance.  Without presuming that scientists were blessed with unalloyed objectivity, Tilley shows that many of them reached politically unwelcome or counterintuitive conclusions through their research, though these did not consistently influence administrative policy on the ground. She convincingly illustrates how early twentieth century scientific research helped deconstruct persistent nineteenth century ideas about Africa and Africans long before late twentieth century post-colonial critiques.

Take, for example, the common suggestion that British scientists and administrators were so influenced by ‘environmental orthodoxy’ and racialist views of Africans that they were unable to appreciate indigenous ecological wisdom or view local farming practices as other than inefficient and destructive.  In 1907 Winston Churchill was sufficiently persuaded of Africa’s underexploited abundance that he described it as “Europe’s future breadbasket” (p. 123); settler plantations were envisioned on a massive scale.  Yet scientific analyses revealed the inherent fragility of tropical soils, and studies in Nigeria and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) showed that African cultivators, the majority of whom were women, had comprehensive knowledge of their environments, growing conditions, and the need to plant a diversity of crops so as to ensure adequate yields.  The American ecologist Homer Shanz, a member of the Smithsonian’s Africa expedition of 1919-20 and later a contributor to the Parliamentary East Africa Commission, undertook with his colleagues a study of African soils, flora, fauna, planting and pastoral practices, concluding that shifting cultivation might well be more productive than ‘modern agriculture’ as it avoided soil erosion caused by ploughing and the decreased yields that resulted from monocropping and damage from pests and disease (pp. 134-36). A study of Northern Rhodesian agriculture by Unwin Moffat in the mid 1920s ascertained that indigenous slash and burn techniques followed by mound cropping, practices that British administrators decried as wasteful, produced three times more millet than test plots using European methods. (pp.139-43). Further studies, such as that by Audrey Richards among the Bemba, contributed to understanding humans as dynamic agents in delicate ecosystems affected by labour migration and disrupted by colonial rule. Here Tilley’s point is to draw attention to “how the production of scientific knowledge transformed colonial understandings of Africans and their environments.  The auto-critique that emerged among research scientists and technical specialists . . . unsettled colonial certainties and opened up a space to take ecological specificities and subaltern knowledge more seriously” (p. 168).

Tilley’s review of medical research acknowledges the role that biomedicine played in attempts to produce more industrious workers and extend colonial authority over broad populations.  But here too she produces evidence to moderate the claims of post-colonial scholars that the approach of interwar scientists to African diseases was fragmented and singular, and paid insufficient heed to social and ecological conditions.  Tilley devotes considerable attention to the problem of trypanosomiasis and the need to control the several species of tsetse fly so as to protect human and domestic animal health (cf. Bell 2000, Ford 1971).  European exploration and colonial interventions of various sorts had altered disease patterns on the continent and encouraged the spread of pathogen carrying insects; epidemics ensued that were difficult to contain.  Colonial medics also confronted African systems of treatment and explanation, which, as anthropologists showed, were logically coherent if epistemologically incompatible with those of bioscience.  Again ecological methods proved invaluable in scientists’ efforts to understand and mitigate, though not eradicate, disease; these came to incorporate ethnographic information on indigenous patterns of vector control and reconnaissance.

Africa was the proving ground for the utility of research in ‘the field’, the ‘living laboratory’ of Tilley’s title.  Relatively young disciplines such as ecology, human geography, environmental medicine, and anthropology based themselves on the increasingly evident need for local particularity, social and ecological context, and interdisciplinarity in comparative research. ‘Africa’ as experienced resisted any quick generalizations made from afar. This facet of Tilley’s book begs us to consider the pendulum swings of academic if not popular attention:  Africa under colonial microscopes was transformed from an unfathomable whole, a dark, frightening Other, into an intricately connected web of specific environments, varied human adaptations, cultures and biosystems that were knowable if incompletely known.  In this context, the anthropological obsession with specificity was spawned or at least encouraged to grow, and proved itself a powerful tool for dispelling damaging misconceptions.

Although anthropologists’ concern for specificity is a principled one, it poses problems when we are asked to comment on ‘African’ issues writ large. I once gave a long interview to a journalist interested in female genital cutting ‘in Africa’ during which I laid out the cultural context in which the practice was enmeshed in a particular village in rural Sudan. The reporter took copious notes. At the end I added the requisite caveat that the discussion pertained to one place at a given point in time, and was not necessarily meaningful elsewhere in Africa where cutting was done, or even elsewhere within Sudan. Her disappointment was palpable. Having thought she’d cracked the code for FGM in Africa as a whole, that certainty had been withdrawn.  The article never ran.

In his book, Global Shadows, James Ferguson (2006) acutely observes that despite the efforts of anthropologists, and indeed technicians, engineers, and bioscientists colonial or otherwise, to convey the specificity of African environments and peoples to North Atlantic imaginations, Africa’s status as radical Other persists.  “Africa,” he writes (2006:2), “continues to be described through a series of lacks and absences, failings and problems, plagues and catastrophes.”  Granted, he speaks less in that book about Africa as an empirical entity than of “ ‘Africa’ as a category through which the ‘world’ is structured . . . a category that is ‘real,’ that is imposed with force, that has a mandatory quality; a category within which, and according to which, people must live” (2006:5).  He seeks a level at which it makes sense to speak anthropologically about the continent as a whole. Reading Ferguson’s book alongside Tilley’s is a salutary exercise; they complement each other in useful ways, tackling ‘the problem of Africa’ from different ends of the analytic and historical scale, while providing important correctives to post-colonial exuberance.  I can imagine a spirited graduate seminar structured around these two books.

Africa as a Living Laboratory paints a fresh portrait of British colonial Africa and does so in exquisite detail. Tilley is careful to account for the excesses and failures of science as well as its achievements, shows how natural and social scientists as well as scientific organizations were intimately engaged with political processes, and provides vital historical context for development experts, social critics, and scholars of the present to weigh. She eschews the extreme epistemological relativism of some critiques of science, writing that “the longer I consider questions of social change and human emancipation, the more I am convinced that truth matters and cannot be ‘relativized’ out of existence” (p. 331).  Her aim, as she notes in her conclusion, is not to provide definitive answers but to stimulate further questions.  She brilliantly succeeds.


Balfour, Andrew, ed.  1904.  First Report of the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories at the Gordon Memorial College Khartoum. Khartoum: Department of Education, Sudan Government.

Bell, Heather.  2000.  Frontiers of Medicine in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1899-1940.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Boddy, Janice.  2007.  Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan.  Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ferguson, James.  2006.  Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order.  Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Ford, John.  1971.  The Role of the Trypanosomiases in African Ecology: A Study of the Tsetse Fly Problem.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Vallance, D. J.  1908. Notes on Ethnographical Specimens Collected by Dr. A.  MacTier Pirrie. Third Report of the Wellcome Research Laboratories, A. Balfour, ed. Khartoum: Department of Education, Sudan Government.  Pp. 377-384.

Waterston, D.  1908.  Report upon the Physical Characteristics of Nilotic Negroid Tribes.  Third Report of the Wellcome Research Laboratories, A. Balfour, ed. Khartoum: Department of Education, Sudan Government. Pp. 325-376.

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