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.
The process opened doors to individual Africans in ways that rather undermine the idea of colonial empires being designed purely to oppress the natives. There was even a black deputy in the French Parliament by 1914 – the grandson of a slave was helping give laws to the French themselves. This comes as something of a jolt. We after all, are supposed to be the enlightened liberal ones. Racist attitudes belong in the past surely. Well we’ll get onto that a bit later. First there is another benefit of colonialism to look at.
The biggest issue for the majority of Africans was not political influence but health. Life expectancy on the African continent was a fraction of that for Europeans – and that gap still exists today. The gap is being narrowed by the huge amount of aid that is given to Africa to improve facilities and to provide medicine. It is often forgotten is that this process actually started in the colonial period.
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.
The scramble of the European powers for Africa was certainly motivated by conquest. But the conquerors took their medical knowledge with them and shared them with their new subjects. Traditional health options had been limited to witch doctors: great for ethnic authenticity but with a low success rate. Modern medicine and health practices started the improvement in life expectancy in Africa. In 1905 the French even set up the world’s first national health service in Senegal. As Niall points out, there were measurable benefits to colonial rule.
It didn’t go that smoothly though. Although there might be a case to be made that Africans were benefitting from French rule, the Africans themselves were keen to maintain an open mind on the matter. For example, an outbreak of bubonic plague in Senegal was treated in the most up to date scientific knowledge which involved destroying infected buildings. The owners didn’t follow the logic and it led to the first general strike in colonial history.
With the turn of the century a more sinister strand of scientific thought came to influence the approach of Europeans to Africans. Germany at the time led the world in science. One of the ideas that was current was that of eugenics. This had been pioneered by Francis Galton who was basically applying lessons learned from the work on evolution of his cousin Charles Darwin. If our adaptations are down to our genes, and that these adaptations are what leads to progress, does it not make sense to take seriously the effects of genes and to look for ways to optimise the gene pool?
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.
But the supposedly superior Westerners were soon showing anything but racial superiority during the First World War. This huge civil war within western civilisation led to the biggest river of blood the world had ever seen. France in particular was being bled dry. The French were soon so short of manpower that they needed Africans to fight for them. They offered French citizenship in return. The offer proved popular. The French had picked up the eugenics bug too, but as the French often do they came up with their own twist. Their research had indicated that the less developed nervous systems of the Africans made them less susceptible to both pain and fear. They were therefore ideal infantry material.
In 1917 this was put to the test and the Senegalese were pitted against the Germans. But the Senegalese were deployed as canon fodder to spare French losses, so the Germans didn’t have what might have been a useful lesson in suffering defeat at the hands of supposedly racially inferior troops. In fact by contrast, it fuelled the further development of racial theories. Surveys of captured Senegalese prisoners of war were used in the production of eugenics textbooks. These were later to give rise to the awful consequences in World War Two. We all know the horrors that that led to.
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.
Civilization – Is the West History Part 1 Competition
Civilization – Is the West History Part 2 Science
Civilization – Is the West History Part 3 Property
Nial Ferguson – For or Against?