Ecological and demographic collapse in the late nineteenth century

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, East Africa experienced social, political and economic upheavals. Disasters came in waves and in diverse types. It began with the spread of epidemics of trypanosomiasis— sleeping sickness—in and around the lake regions of central and eastern Africa. Then came smallpox, a devastating disease spread by caravans and the slave trade, and warriors who raided their neighbors.82 Cholera also had spread to the interior along the slave and trade routes between 1836 and 1870. The history of cholera in East Africa has been described by Dr. James Christie,83 tracing the routes through which the disease spread from the coast to the interior. Although the data on fatalities are unavailable or scanty, the deaths by the epidemics were recalled locally as the worst ever experienced.84

The litany of disasters broke the backbone of the African pastoral and agricultural societies.8’ By the end of that period, the previously most fertile land with a large human population would be described as ‘desolate’ following processes that broke human and environmental harmony. The collapse of human and livestock populations implies that few people were left to cultivate the land. The concomitant encroachment of bushlands— ideal habitats for tsetse fly—literally drove the few surviving humans from many millions of acres of land.86

In the footsteps of these disasters followed an outbreak of bovine pleuropneumonia. The Maasai named the period emutai—the end of, or termination of cattle pastoralism—in 1883.8' Joseph Thomson88 described the scenes of devastation in his book Through Masai land. As if that crisis were not enough, the last decade of the nineteenth century saw the rinderpest epizootic sweep across the Horn, eastern and southern Africa.89 The rinderpest virus (Tortoboris) is spread through the air and is highly contagious.90 The rinderpest destroyed herds of cattle, the main source of livelihood of the pastoralists, and brought hunger and famine. The biological catastrophe which so comprehensively struck East Africa stuck in the African mind— the period is known by various names depending on the local dialects. In Oromo it is known as ciinna, which refers to the end of time.91 The ramifi- cations of the disasters are not only expressed in linguistic terms, but they also reflect survivors’ memories of a collapsed social, economic and political

9?

system.

The demographic collapse caused the vegetation of the region to shift from open grass savanna to bushy thickets, expanding the home range of the tsetse fly, which remained a threat for decades (see Chapter 8). The effect on pastoralists and the agricultural communities was devastating.93 The period also saw outbreaks of locust plagues94 that destroyed the croplands, further aggravating famine conditions (Chapter 9). The multiple sequences of events had caused irreparable damage to the economies of East Africa by the time the region was divided up into colonial spheres of influence.9

In Chapter 3, we describe the main characteristics of scientific research infrastructure and its chronological establishment that anchored imperial science in the three East African colonies of Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda.

 
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