Wild Enthusiasts

Bernard Porter

  • 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, ISBN 978 0 226 80347 0

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’.

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