Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950 
by Helen Tilley.
Chicago, 496 pp., £18.50, April 2011, 978 0 226 80347 0
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British imperialism may have been oversold. Anti-imperialists tend to blame it for most of the problems of the modern world; a rather smaller band of apologists credits it with spreading modernity. These views are not incompatible: either way it is seen as crucial. Most of the popular debate centres on whether it was (or is) a force for good or for ill. Little consideration is given to the possibility that it wasn’t much of a force at all. By means of imperialism, the story goes, the West came to dominate what Niall Ferguson calls ‘the Rest’. In order to do this it had to be pretty ruthless: confident of its own cultural and ideological values, and keen to impose them on others.

In fact, it rarely worked like this. Britain did not have the resources – or, more accurately, the will to commit them – to impose its values everywhere. The British Empire – with the partial exception of India – was run on a shoestring. Between 1913 and 1949 the total number of administrators supposedly running the tropical African colonies – nine of them, with a total population of perhaps forty million – never went much above three thousand, and was usually closer to 2500. Of course, they had armies at their disposal (‘Whatever happens, we have got,/The Maxim gun and they have not’), but they were very small, and often outspeared if not outgunned. You would need a very compliant native population to Westernise to a significant extent with means as slender as these. Most Africans weren’t compliant. Simply controlling them was hard enough, and could generally be done only by abandoning any notion of changing them. This meant ruling ‘indirectly’, as it was called: with the help of African collaborators, and through their own customs and beliefs. In Muslim northern Nigeria, for example, this took the form of helping emirs govern through sharia law. A common excuse was that the natives weren’t up to Western ways; or – in a more charitable version – not up to them yet. Another possible motive, widely suspected among those Africans who wanted to be Westernised, was that it was merely a means of keeping them down. So much for the famed ‘civilising mission’.

Helen Tilley’s Africa as a Living Laboratory discusses the part played by science in all this. According to one modern anti-imperialist reading, science was merely a creature of colonialism, trapped within the dominant imperial discourse, and distorted to serve the occupier’s ends. Tilley flatly denies this. It may have been what governments and exploiters wanted; but the scientists didn’t always deliver, and, she claims, could occasionally be subversive.

At the centre of her fascinating study is the quasi-official ‘survey’ of sub-Saharan Africa that was made between 1929 and 1939, and overseen by Malcolm (later Lord) Hailey, an ex-Indian civil servant. Its findings were published in 1938 in one huge volume, An African Survey: A Study of Problems Arising in Africa South of the Sahara; together with a spin-off, Science in Africa: A Review of Scientific Research Relating to Tropical and Southern Africa. The Colonial Office was initially wary of it. ‘The whole scheme wants watching carefully, not to say suspiciously,’ one official wrote in 1930: in case, as another warned, it became ‘a thorn in the side of the CO’. The department was in an awkward position. It needed more reliable information about Africa, to help it rule and – in particular – ‘develop’ the continent. That’s why it co-operated. But it didn’t trust the surveyors to understand its priorities. When an early draft of Science in Africa was submitted in 1934, it seemed ‘very poor stuff’ to the assistant under-secretary charged with liaising with the survey: too many ‘misleading’ inferences for ‘policy’ could be drawn from it. That was the problem: scientists weren’t always willing to be ‘tools of empire’.

This was especially true of their work on the continent’s economic development. At the time development was seen, Tilley writes, as ‘synonymous with the task of exploiting natural resources’, both for Britain’s and, it was claimed, the Africans’ benefit. Large-scale production on European lines was envisaged. Agronomists and geographers were asked to investigate, but their findings didn’t help. One of them wondered why on earth the Africans would want to ‘change their methods of growing their foodstuffs’ when ‘they are able to produce all the food they require’ in their own ways. Most regarded large-scale production for the export market as inimical to native welfare, as well as counter-productive in agricultural terms. A Northern Rhodesian expert in 1938 reckoned that, contrary to local settler opinion, ‘erosion was almost invariably due primarily not to the native but to the European, who had introduced tillage in certain areas and had encouraged the production of economic crops.’ Science in Africa thought these methods were not ‘worthy to be designated “farming”’ at all: ‘soil exploitation’ would have been more accurate. Nearly all the scientists found that African methods were superior: more flexible, better adapted to local ecologies, even more ‘progressive’. It was necessary to recognise, Science in Africa concluded, that ‘the Africans still know more about it than we.’ Some humility was called for. Tilley refers to a ‘counter-colonial ecology’; it was also anti-capitalist in its implications.

In much the same way, many medical scientists, arriving in Africa full of the benefits they thought they could bring, and with a highly condescending view of indigenous therapies – ‘witch doctors’ and the like – changed their tune when they came to see how well those therapies worked in local conditions. Stung by a reference to African ‘quacks’ in an early draft of Science in Africa, Tanganyika’s medical director protested that ‘native practitioners are not “quacks” to their own people’, and Western medicine still had much to learn about the treatment of disease before arrogating to itself ‘an exalted position in connection with its cure’. The ‘quack’ slur was edited out; and Science in Africa concluded instead with the observation that ‘Europeans may have something to learn, as well as to teach.’ That still seems grudging. They learned a great deal: stuff that was useful in Europe as well as in Africa, though Tilley contends that neither the native healers nor the many highly qualified African ‘assistants’ who interceded between them and the researchers have been given proper credit for this, because of ‘the “machinery of knowledge” that connected territories to the metropole’. (In other words, because the Europeans wrote it up.) The most valuable medical lesson drawn from Africa and taken back to Europe was probably the importance of ‘ecology’ for understanding, controlling and treating disease.

Central to this way of thinking was the new discipline of anthropology. Early on, this was the science the colonial establishment trusted least. The Colonial Office had little interest in ‘having our officers delivered to be prey of wild enthusiasts’.

If an inhabitant of a South Sea Island feels obliged on some ceremonial occasion to eat his grandmother, the anthropologist is attracted to examine and explain the ancient custom which caused him to do so: the practical man, on the other hand, tends to take more interest in the grandmother. The one calls it aviophagy and the other murder: it depends on the point of view.

Thus Philip Mitchell of Tanganyika, one of the enthusiasts’ most colourful critics. Aviophagy isn’t in the OED; Mitchell probably made it up. Trying to understand native cultures and systems was fair enough in the CO’s view: what they objected to was the anthropologists’ desire to preserve them as ‘museum specimens’. That would be fatal to development of any kind.

It was also a problem for the other side. Few of the graduates of the Westernising Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone were likely to warm to an approach which implied that they should never have left their villages. Even Africans who took up anthropology themselves (Jomo Kenyatta is the most famous) resented the fact that it was always Europeans looking at – looking down at – ‘primitive’ peoples and never the other way round. Modjaben Dowuona, later one of the first African administrators on the Gold Coast, suggested in 1934 that it might be a good idea if some African students were trained in anthropology, specifically to ‘study the white peoples, especially the English, their customs and institutions, and interpret them to the world’. In post-colonial historiography it became usual to regard anthropologists as colonial collaborators, tainted by the cosy relationship they needed to cultivate with suspicious colonial officials in order to study the natives; and by the part they supposedly played in bolstering the essentially conservative and controlling policy of indirect rule. They were also suspected of racism, maybe because anthropology had not yet lived down its early association with measuring skulls.

Skull-measuring was still being done; but usually by eugenicists, who formed a separate category, a relatively small and diminishing one. Their most prominent representative here is Dr Henry Laing Gordon, an amateur psychologist and early champion of IQ testing, who claimed to have discovered that only Africans given ‘some kind of European education’ exhibited ‘the mental affliction known as dementia praecox’, or schizophrenia; which was convenient for those who thought they shouldn’t be educated at all. Most of the white settler community of British east-central Africa – the tribe Gordon came from – held this view. In Britain, however, his methodology and conclusions were roundly rejected, even by prominent members of the British Eugenics Society. Establishing African racial inferiority doesn’t seem to have been the aim of any officially sponsored science in the interwar years. The CO, for example, pointedly refused funding to a 1934 Kenyan proposal to institute research into African ‘mental capacity’ and ‘backwardness’. When race was discussed in colonial and scientific circles in Britain, it was generally in terms of race prejudice: ‘the burning problem of world politics’, Malinowski called it. At the First International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, held in 1933, the Australian anatomist and anthropologist Grafton Elliot Smith expressed what seems to have been the consensus view when he said that the ‘Aryan fallacy’ came ‘into flagrant conflict with the generally recognised teaching of anthropological science’: differences between individuals and ‘races’ were rooted in culture, not biology.

By the 1930s, anthropologists were clear that cultures were always changing, through contact with changing environments and with other cultures, including (in these African cases) imperial ones. There was no way of stopping ‘progress’ in this sense. This applied as much to what Malinowski called the ‘detribalised tropical European’ as to the African. (He thought it might explain the ‘pathological forms’ of ‘Kenya lunacy’, as well as the ‘ordinary idiocy of the average colonial administrator’.) The trick was to try to manage the transition, so as to ease its more brutal effects. In the interwar years British anthropologists increasingly pursued what Malinowski termed – it was the title of the book he published in 1945 – the ‘dynamics of culture change’.

There can be no doubt that this was an ‘imperialist’ line in one essential respect. To manage culture change one had to have authority over it. It is for this reason, incidentally, that the wisest British critics of empire at this time were rarely out-and-out anti-imperialists. They knew that there was no other option. Without it, or some (far preferable) system of international safeguards, other more ‘informal’ kinds of imperialism would be bound to take over: most likely international capitalism. Malinowski was horrified by this prospect: ‘one of the greatest crises in human history’, he said: ‘the Westernisation of the world’. The ‘whole trend of modern economic development’, he went on, ‘was to stimulate increased production and consumption. The assumption underlying present economic conditions was that the greater the volume of trade, the better it was for humanity.’ (Does this sound familiar?) In this situation, ‘it was for the anthropologist to see … that [the native] was not forced to labour on products he did not wish to produce so that he might satisfy needs that he did not wish to satisfy’. This would help him to preserve or adapt what was best in his culture. But ‘practical anthropology’, as he put it, could only work when combined with an enlightened imperialism – ideally with empire as the tool of science, rather than vice versa.

But this wasn’t likely to happen. Hence the anthropologists’ scathing criticisms of British imperialism: of the ‘misguided actions’ of its ‘impatient, revolutionary white men’, with their ‘unquestioning belief in the inherent superiority’ of their own social customs; their ignorant contempt for the Africans’ superior – more ecologically sensitive – practices and their destruction of indigenous political structures that had been ‘profoundly democratic’, though the white men were too stupid to realise it. This was hardly comforting to the imperialists, and may have seemed to justify their initial mistrust. The CO had taken on the anthropologists in order to ‘grease the wheel of empire’, as Tilley puts it, only for them to ‘use their tools to chip away at it once on the inside’.

Africa as a Living Laboratory will surprise some readers, who may expect from the title yet another stricture on the way Britain used its colonies and their peoples as a research facility for its own imperial purposes; but they will find that Tilley is far too aware of the nuances, ambivalences, weaknesses and even contradictions of British imperialism to be seduced by such foolish simplifications. She is at pains to emphasise that she is not defending imperialism; and the effect of her analysis is to provide a much more reliable basis for any critique of it.

The nuances of British colonial rule are evident in the white racial attitudes found under it. Usually, these depended on what precisely the whites were doing in Africa, and what they wanted from the Africans. The settlers (including Gordon) were the most racist of the lot. Their own detribalisation – another example of culture change – may have played a part in this. The culture they had come from originally (assuming that was Britain) was less deeply racist; and the scientific community least of all. Its primary discourse had not been overlaid or undermined by an imperialist one. Even when the scientists brought racist preconceptions with them from Europe, they were capable of modifying them according to their observations and experiments on the ground. Tilley admits that she is a ‘defender of science’: the scientific method, that is, rather than the conclusions that ‘bad’ science sometimes throws up. The same method informs her own research, which is rigorously empirical, in contrast with the airily theoretical approaches that mar so much recent work in this area.

One of the findings Tilley thinks will most surprise modern critics is that many of the subversive ideas and policies attributed to the post-colonial reaction originated far back in the colonial period, and from ‘within the epicentres of colonial and metropolitan control’. Not only that: they did not always survive the dismantling of that control. African governments often abandoned them. Tilley thinks this is because Africans inevitably associated the new ecological methods, for example, with the imperial structures that had imposed them, without allowing Africans much say in the process. Yet another demonstration of the pointlessness of trying to do ‘good’ at the point of an imperial sword.

But removing the empire’s control also took away the protection it gave. That had not been effective everywhere – in colonies with large settler populations, for instance – but without it, the new, weak successor states were laid open to the full blast of global market forces. Tilley makes a telling comparison between a famous British report of 1945 on ‘Colonial Development and Welfare’ and a report on the first meeting of the World Bank and the IMF the following year. The first emphasised ‘welfare’ and ‘broad and interdisciplinary scientific research’ – exactly the approach honed in the interwar years. By contrast, ‘the World Bank meeting stressed economic and financial knowledge and looked no further.’ Malinowski and many of the ‘experts’ sent out to Africa in the 1920s and 1930s had warned that without the British Empire the economists would flood in. The result was not the end of imperialism, but the replacement of one sort by another. Those who believe that imperialism made – or messed up – the modern world need to be aware of the differences between the two. And of how vulnerable the British kind was; in the face of not only rivals and rebels, but also the doubts of many of its own scientists, who didn’t dance to the imperial tune.

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Vol. 34 No. 11 · 7 June 2012

Bernard Porter’s account of the ambiguities of anthropology as it played in our ‘civilising mission’ in Africa brought to mind a story told by the American anthropologist Elizabeth Colson, who has studied the Tonga people of South Zambia for sixty years (LRB, 10 May). In the 1940s some earnest young Tongans told her they’d come to the conclusion that the Bible contained the knowledge that was the secret of European power over them. They didn’t trust the Bibles available from the local missions because they believed that the key passages had been cut out before the Bibles were distributed to Africans. They were hoping she had brought some unexpurgated copies with her.

Derek Summerfield
London SE5

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