Race and Empire: eugenics in colonial Kenya (review)
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Reviewed by
Chloe Campbell, Race and Empire: eugenics in colonial Kenya. Manchester: Manchester University Press (hb £50 – 978 0 71907 160 7). 2007, 256 pp.

Campbell’s book is a welcome addition to the series Studies in Imperialism. The focus of this work is a meticulous charting of an aspect of pseudoscientific research during the 1930s with particular reference to colonial Kenya. Whilst it is relatively easy with the benefit of hindsight to dismiss the events and processes which Campbell describes in the light of what was subsequently revealed by a similar process in Nazi Germany, it is enlightening to see the ways in which eugenicist theories were regarded as self-evidently plausible when attached to the contemporary attitudes of racist politics in that period. As Campbell’s work demonstrates, the theories put forward by the medical practitioners were, although implausible in the twenty-first century, not only accepted but widely advertised as a weapon to uphold and maintain the unequal power relations held by the minority group of white settlers. Nonetheless, as Campbell’s research uncovers, the work carried out in some ‘apparent’ depth by the two medical officers was not accepted either by the Colonial Office or by a majority of politicians in Britain.

The major players responsible for concocting the data were H. L. Gordon and F. W. Vint, who pursued medical careers in Kenya – albeit, as is pointed out by Campbell, with an approach to their ‘official’ appointments that appeared to take second place to their involvement in the attempt to demonstrate the link between race and intelligence whereby, purportedly, the evidence would incontrovertibly reveal the inherent mental incapacity of Africans in Kenya. Campbell draws attention to the establishment of the Kenya Society for the Study of Race Improvement (KSSRI) in 1933; through a programme of lectures and debates it attracted not only audiences but also continued support from the white settlers. This group clearly had a vested [End Page 625] interest in upholding the fragile evidence on which the case for eugenics rested. By contrast, as Campbell shows, Whitehall afforded the colonial advocates neither financial nor intellectual support; thus no legislation based purely on eugenics was implemented. Nonetheless, as Campbell also reveals, in part this could have been on account of Whitehall’s unwillingness to make the necessary financial investment in both health and education.

Campbell’s book offers a detailed account and analysis of networks between the metropole and the colony that demonstrated a shared mindset to which an ‘African mind’ was not only sui generis but could, with appropriate ‘Western’ education, become ‘civilized’. The book has drawn extensively on archival sources in both Britain and Kenya, and Campbell also provides an overview of the support given by different ‘interest groups’ in the Kenyan eugenics movement. Unsurprisingly, among those supporting the movement were other white settler societies.

Tina Picton Phillipps
University of Edinburgh