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  • Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950
  • Matthew V. Bender
Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950. By Helen Tilley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 520 pp. $85.00 (cloth); $29.00 (paper); $7.00-29.00 (e-book).

The partition of Africa in the late nineteenth century occurred at roughly the same time as the rapid development of many new scientific disciplines (p. 11). Helen Tilley's book examines this coincidence, looking at the relationship between imperialism and scientific knowledge in British colonial Africa from the 1870s to the 1950s. Though [End Page 447] the book examines a period of time nearly as long as the whole of the colonial era, the focus is the interwar period and, in particular, an ambitious project called the African Research Survey. Though many scholars have examined science in the context of colonial rule in Africa, Tilley's approach is refreshing and innovative in its breadth and its comparative, interdisciplinary focus.

Tilley's core premise is that colonial Africa emerged as a "living laboratory" for both colonial officials and scientists from the 1870s. As European imperial ambitions turned toward the African continent, new scientific fields such as geography, ecology, and anthropology were beginning to emerge. Faced with numerous questions related to governing their new territories, colonial officials turned to these experts to provide needed knowledge. What emerges is a complex relationship between science and empire, at times mutually beneficial, at other times strained and tenuous. Tilley skillfully argues that these emerging sciences had the power to both coerce and liberate (p. 25). At times, scientific knowledge was used to support the management of empire and the suppression of the colonized, while at other times it could act as "subversive knowledge," challenging the very assumptions of colonial rule (p. 24). This argument adds much needed nuance to existing scholarship, which all too often has argued for one or the other.

The first chapter of the book sets groundwork by looking at the role of geographical societies in the partition of Africa in the 1870s and 1880s. Tilley asserts that organizations such as the Royal Geographical Society were central to colonization, that "only after African exploring committees proliferated widely and brought questions about their scientific and geopolitical remit to the fore did political leaders confront the issue of whether they would authorize territorial claims in the tropical interior" (p. 53). Thus, colonization from the start was framed in a language of science.

Chapter 2 is where Tilley begins to illuminate the complex relationship that emerges between empire and science through a key source, the African Research Survey. The survey, which originated in 1929, came about from the desire of prominent colonial officials to explore scientific questions related to the development of African colonies. By the time of its completion in 1938, the survey had "moved from the margins of the British government to its highest echelons of power" (p. 75). Highly influential, the survey is remarkable in that it was conducted by scientists outside the employ of the Colonial Office, and as such promoted many ideas that ran counter to colonial orthodoxy.

The controversies that ensued are illuminated in chapters 3 through 6, which examine the intersection of colonial policy and developments [End Page 448] within specific fields of science. Chapter 3 looks at agricultural and environmental science, a topic that has been the subject of much work by African historians. Tilley points out, like other scholars, how colonial attitudes toward African cultivators, and in turn their role in the colonial economy, began to shift in the 1920s and 1930s. However, she stresses the importance of scientific research in "deconstructing" assumptions about tropical soil fertility and poor indigenous agricultural practices (p. 122). As scientists turned their attention to studying what Tilley terms "vernacular science," they led to a shift in the value that colonial governments placed on African knowledge (pp. 122-123).

Chapter 4 turns to the issue of medical science. Tropical diseases such as trypanosomiasis and malaria were major concerns to colonial governments, and the desire for stronger control strategies led to collaboration with scientists...


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pp. 447-451
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