With great subtlety and care, Helen Tilley guides her readers along the thoughtways of British researchers as they struggled to understand an entire continent, one their country had colonized. In the 1870s they barely knew what lay beyond a few enclaves on Africa’s coasts, and no body of literature existed for them to consult. By 1950 they had produced detailed scientific knowledge about African agriculture, health, and societies, analyzing their findings—gained not in armchairs but from fieldwork—within a framework that was appropriately interdisciplinary. And they increasingly gave credit to local systems of knowledge. Their new knowledge, Tilley concludes, undermined many of the prideful assumptions on which the imperial enterprise was based. Further, Africa “as a laboratory” contributed to the “bricks and mortar” of disciplines (like anthropology) and concepts (like ecology) that shape how modern knowledge is produced (314). Africa became, as her title says, a “living laboratory” for the world.
Based on colonial archives, including papers produced for William Malcolm Hailey’s magisterial African Survey (1938), Tilley’s book describes twentieth-century intellectual journeys that were truly significant. Breakthroughs in medical knowledge derived from African experiences. Tropical medicine shifted away from a linear understanding of disease causation, in which microbes alone were targeted, toward a more ecological understanding: people grew to accept that health was determined by interactions between human, plant, animal, and parasitic organisms. Agricultural researchers and field ecologists examined African soils, concluding that while the tropics were not as fertile as the Victorians had supposed, Africans were better farmers than previously imagined: their slash and burn cultivation enriched the soil, and they sagely controlled the spread of the tsetse fly by setting grass fires, building dense settlements, and culling game. Anthropological fieldwork led to a more sensitive understanding of witchcraft. When anthropologists studied contemporary social issues like urbanization, land tenure, law, and the damages wrought to rural life by colonization, their findings could influence colonial policy.
Discarded along the way were late nineteenth–century ideas about empire, racist theories about mental capacity, and evolutionary theories of racial hierarchies. In their place grew new concerns about “racial psychology” and the consequences of “culture contact” (13). Victorians’ curiosity about Africa had initially been geographical: they aimed to fill in the blank spaces, vividly illustrated here by five colored maps punctuated by a lot of white. Tilley’s twentieth-century researchers built on the curiosity of the Victorians, [End Page 358] but they constantly unsettled or deconstructed their ideas about Africa. In their circles Social Darwinism did not get very far. A Kenya settler who suggested researching “the mind of the native” found no imperial body willing to sponsor his scheme (234). As the twentieth century wore on, researchers resorted less and less to race to explain behavior, striving to “localize knowledge” rather than to rely on grand theories (130).
Tilley never overstates the immediate practical impact of these scientific ideas. Even though she traces the roots of a desire to develop Africa to the early years of the twentieth century, she does not give much evidence of actual development or of colonial practices. She carefully observes that colonial states aimed in principle, “if not always in practice,” to enhance African well-being (123). She cautions that new appreciation of African farming techniques “did not always fundamentally reshape the views of policy makers in the metropole” (122). And she acknowledges that “scientific concerns were subordinated to colonial states’ economic priorities,” both “by default and by design” (128). Colonial officers, scientists, and administrators “often forgot [the] African origins” of their knowledge (208), which was, in any case, “probably” adopted in too “uncoordinated” a fashion to make “much of a difference to the lives of most Africans” (216). Imperial administrators continued to be intolerant of African therapeutic traditions. Racial preoccupations in science did not disappear from colonial studies of British Africa, and no legal and political structures were altered, though in the 1930s British officials became...