Pioneer research, 1848–1913

Science, as a ‘service to the empire,’ was a vehicle for generating wealth, according to Joseph Banks,6 whose vision was the integration of science with political ventures in the colonies. By linking the application of science to the ‘cumbersome’ colonial machinery, Banks recommended the building of research infrastructure in the colonies. As a leading scientist himself, president of the British Royal Society, and with wide networks among European countries, he emphasized the beneficial use of science as a cosmopolitan vehicle to benefit most of humanity. The European colonial visions for development were varied.

For the French, the goal was to conduct exploratory scientific missions to document and make inventories of the flora and fauna in the colonies, often with the aim of supplying specimens to botanical gardens and zoos in France. This approach changed following the First World War, when the interest became what Van Beusekom' calls mise en valeur (or ‘development and improvement’), when the French focused on food production using new scientific methods. French researchers acknowledged the function of colonial science as a ‘civilizing mission,’ thereby separating colonial sciences needed for developing the colonies and those that targeted exportable products from the colonies to France.8 The French were aware that ‘science was ever changing’—implying that science and development in the colonies were largely ‘experimental,’ changing from one time period to another, including the ways in which science might be applied to promote food production among African farming societies.

In comparison, the Germans, in their East African colony of Tanganyika, approached research from two perspectives in what Andrew Zimmerman calls ‘the binary option’: namely to apply research to nature and to the cultures of the peoples in the colony. The view of the German researchers was that local cultures did not transform nature but co-existed with it. To achieve their purpose of working with both nature and the African people, the Germans sent expeditions to conduct scientific surveys of local soils, collect crop seeds, establish research stations, and understand the cultures of the African peoples. German East Africa received funds subsidized by German scientific societies to the tune of £7,500 per year—a huge sum at that time.9

Conversely, the long-term goal of the British Empire was to prioritize the extraction of surplus produce in the East African colonies of Kenya and Uganda for the benefit of the metropole.10 British pioneers established the African Association which renewed interest in discovering and exploring the interior of the African continent.11 By the late nineteenth century, Sir H. Rawlinson and others had established the African Exploration Fund to facilitate the journeys of early travelers in the continent. The ‘Exploration of East Africa’ expeditions (1848-1876) were sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and produced the earliest maps with accurate geodesic references for important geographical features. This was the beginning of the field of ‘scientific geography.’12

For the British, the relationship between science and empire reflected an evolution—at times, they shifted the balance of resource allocations between science and development.13 This was until Joseph Chamberlain became Secretary of State for the colonies in 1895 and implemented changes in colonial policies towards development. Even so, funding was irregular, and was available mostly in response to emergency situations.14 Initial interests were in medical research which spurred training in tropical diseases in British universities. The first task of the British researchers was to understand the causes of and find cures for diseases that threatened European settlements in the colonies. Their second task was to initiate organized agricultural production.15 By the 1890s, the extent of imperial scientific research had grown, even though the British Foreign Office had not planned any development schemes, despite Joseph Chamberlain’s new policy.16

For much of eastern and southern Africa, the 1890s was a calamitous period for both humans and beasts.17 The environments from which human and livestock populations had been divested became overgrown with bushy vegetation, providing an ideal habitat for tsetse flies—the vector of sleeping sickness in people and trypanosomiasis in cattle. British medical research projects received funds between 1895 and 1900 to investigate the strain of the trypanosomiasis that had devastated African populations and ruined their economies.18 Due to this emergency situation, the number of researchers visiting the colonies increased.19 It was also during this early period (around 1900) that the Society for the Preservation of Wild Fauna was founded.20

During this early period (1900), in principle, the British planned to modernize the colonies by uplifting the welfare of African societies; however, in practice, this involved the promotion of mercantile economies through scientific research.21 In Tanganyika, the Germans established biological and agricultural research stations at Amani and Rugwe in 1902.22 Five years earlier, a research station had been established at Kwai, but this was later abandoned.2’ Through Frank Stuhlmann, the director of the Amani Institute in 1905, the Germans began gathering information on the peasant economy in Tanganyika as part of their agricultural research.24 In Kenya, the British established the Scott Agricultural Laboratory at Kabete (later renamed Muguga), near Nairobi, in 1907.b In German East Africa, research activities focused on soil erosion control.26 By 1907, neither the British nor the Germans had completed any concrete development plans for the colonies.2. Research activities were then sporadic until after the First World War.28

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