Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950
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Tropical Africa was one of the last regions of the world to experience formal European colonialism, a process that coincided with the advent of a range of new scientific specialties and research methods. Africa as a Living Laboratory is a far-reaching study of the thorny relationship between imperialism and the role of scientific expertise—environmental, medical, racial, and anthropological—in the colonization of British Africa.
A key source for Helen Tilley’s analysis is the African Research Survey, a project undertaken in the 1930s to explore how modern science was being applied to African problems. This project both embraced and recommended an interdisciplinary approach to research on Africa that, Tilley argues, underscored the heterogeneity of African environments and the interrelations among the problems being studied. While the aim of British colonialists was unquestionably to transform and modernize Africa, their efforts, Tilley contends, were often unexpectedly subverted by scientific concerns with the local and vernacular. Meticulously researched and gracefully argued, Africa as a Living Laboratory transforms our understanding of imperial history, colonial development, and the role science played in both.
knowledge of Africa? What do we know of the general aspect of its soil, of the elevations of its surface, of the distribution of its waters? What are its climate and resources? To what families do the races [peuples] which inhabit it belong? To what degree of civilisation have they raised themselves? Do there exist reasons for believing that they may reach higher?”50 These were questions that many geographical societies across Europe were trying to answer.51 In a series of articles written
future was anthropologists, although their professional identity was even less established than that of medical researchers or geographers. Indeed, thanks in part to the publication of the British Association’s Notes and Queries on Anthropology (1874), a joint endeavor between geographers and anthropologists, it was expedition leaders and ﬁeld ofﬁcers rather than selfprofessed anthropologists who ﬁrst published specialized studies on African people and cultures. Frustrated leaders of Britain’s
Indian Exhibition of 1886, “Anthropology teaches us to sympathise with other races, and to regard them as kinsmen rather than aliens. In this aspect it may be looked upon as a pursuit of no small political value.”121 Although professorships in anthropology were established at Oxford and Cambridge in 1884 and 1900 respectively, the Anthropological Institute continued to face serious obstacles in its efforts to convince the British government to sponsor research on ethnographic and ethnological
realise at last that there is nothing mysterious shrouding the diseases, of the once ‘Dark Continent.’ The word acclimatisation has now no more signiﬁcance than the word miracle.” The commission’s research in effect undermined so many of the assumptions then prevalent in acclimatization debates that Christy felt it had become an almost useless concept. “There is every reason to believe An Imperial Laboratory / 67 that careful research, on the spot, by men trained in research methods, cannot
of thought is the relation between the proposed institute and the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures.” Oldham had left the Oxford conference enthusiastic about the general outlines of the project, but in the intervening months he had left the planning to others while he wrote a “critical examination” of Smuts’s Rhodes lectures, focusing on the questions involved in the governance of East Africa, which was being considered by a parliamentary committee.78 Only after he