European imperialism gets a bad press these days. Somehow, world domination just doesn’t seem to be regarded as a valid goal any more. But when European rule was at its height in Africa, there was an argument that it was a force for good. It had the mission of civilising the world. And as the Africans were the most savage, they were naturally the most in need of being civilised.
No empire in history tried as hard to run a civilising mission as the French. They had originally gone to Africa attracted by the profits available from slavery. But come the French Revolution there was an outbreak of idealism. The slaves were freed. Some were even given the vote. In Senegal, France’s black subjects went from slaves to French citizens. Even an African army was created.
There was a bit of self interest in this. Disease was one of the biggest obstacles to European rule. When the first yellow fever vaccine was developed in a microbiology lab in Senegal, one of the consequences was to widen the range that white men could safely travel and so help with further conquests.
These ideas were prevalent throughout Europe, but fell on particularly fertile soil in Germany. They chose to put them into practice in their newly acquired colony of Namibia in Africa. In Namibia the German colonists treated the supposedly inferior Herero natives as little better than animals, even simply shooting them if they got in their way. In the end this led to a revolt. The revolt was put down with extreme severity. The Germans using mortars and machine guns had little difficulty in expelling the tribe of the Heraro into the desert where they were herded into concentration camps. Genocide had arrived in the twentieth century. Out of 80,000 Heraro at the time of the revolt only 15.000 survived. If that wasn’t bad enough, the corpses were used for ‘biological racial research’. The findings when published discovered that negro blood was inferior and should not be mixed with European blood.
So what did I make of this programme? It was as ever interesting and engaging. Some very good points were made. But it wasn’t remotely what it was billed as. What was the role of medicine in the triumph of the West? Well all we learned was that it helped in the colonisation of Africa. A bit. Though on the evidence presented it would be just as reasonable to conclude that it was the colonisation of Africa that helped the development of medicine.
It is good to be reminded of a few key points that are obvious enough when you think about them, but which it is tempting not to think about. Racism is not some hangover from the distant past that we have now grown out of. It was an offshoot of scientific thought at the beginning of the twentieth century. Eugenics was not a minority viewpoint of a few fanatics, it was the mainstream. And when you look at it, it isn’t even that unreasonable given the state of scientific knowledge at the time. Certainly it was advocated by some pretty talented people. And it had a real influence on history and people’s behaviour. And that influence was just about as bad as it was possible to be. Even if it had just been the unfortunate Herero tribesfolk that would have been bad enough. It isn’t reason to fall out of love with science and progress, but it is reason to think things through. Niall slipped in a sly dig at the believers in man made climate change at one point. I believe in man made climate change but I hate it when its supporters use the ‘all scientists agree that it must be true’ line. All scientists have agreed on things that have been disastrously wrong before.
Final verdict – good show and well worth watching. Please get around to making the one that would have actually fitted into the series. That would have been good too.
I have got quite a lot of coverage of Niall Ferguson now. You may find these links interesting.