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Disease Control and Public Health in Colonial Africa  

Samuël Coghe

Disease control and public health have been key aspects of social and political life in sub-Saharan Africa since time immemorial. With variations across space and time, many societies viewed disease as the result of imbalances in persons and societies and combined the use of materia medica from the natural world, spiritual divination, and community healing to redress these imbalances. While early encounters between African and European healing systems were still marked by mutual exchanges and adaptations, the emergence of European germ theory-based biomedicine and the establishment of racialized colonial states in the 19th century increasingly challenged the value of African therapeutic practices for disease control on the continent. Initially, colonial states focused on preserving the health of European soldiers, administrators, and settlers, who were deemed particularly vulnerable to tropical climate and its diseases. Around 1900, however, they started paying more attention to diseases among Africans, whose health and population growth were now deemed crucial for economic development and the legitimacy of colonial rule. Fueled by new insights and techniques provided by tropical medicine, antisleeping sickness campaigns would be among the first major interventions. After World War I, colonial health services expanded their campaigns against epidemic diseases, but also engaged with broader public health approaches that addressed reproductive problems and the social determinants of both disease and health. Colonial states were not the only providers of biomedical healthcare in colonial Africa. Missionary societies and private companies had their own health services, with particular logics, methods, and focuses. And after 1945, international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) increasingly invested in health campaigns in Africa as well. Moreover, Africans actively participated in colonial disease control, most notably as nurses, midwives, and doctors. Nevertheless, Western biomedicine never gained hegemony in colonial Africa. Many Africans tried to avoid or minimize participation in certain campaigns or continued to utilize the services of local healers and diviners, often in combination with particular biomedical approaches. To what extent colonial disease control impacted on disease incidence and demography is still controversially debated.


Cannabis and Tobacco in Precolonial and Colonial Africa  

Chris S. Duvall

Cannabis and tobacco have longstanding roles in African societies. Despite botanical and pharmacological dissimilarities, it is worthwhile to consider tobacco and cannabis together because they have been for centuries the most commonly and widely smoked drug plants. Cannabis, the source of marijuana and hashish, was introduced to eastern Africa from southern Asia, and dispersed widely within Africa mostly after 1500. In sub-Saharan Africa, cannabis was taken into ethnobotanies that included pipe smoking, a practice invented in Africa; in Asia, it had been consumed orally. Smoking significantly changes the drug pharmacologically, and the African innovation of smoking cannabis initiated the now-global practice. Africans developed diverse cultures of cannabis use, including Central African practices that circulated widely in the Atlantic world via slave trading. Tobacco was introduced to Africa from the Americas in the late 1500s. It gained rapid, widespread popularity, and Africans developed distinctive modes of tobacco production and use. Primary sources on these plants are predominantly from European observers, which limits historical knowledge because Europeans strongly favored tobacco and were mostly ignorant or disdainful of African cannabis uses. Both plants have for centuries been important subsistence crops. Tobacco was traded across the continent beginning in the 1600s; cannabis was less valuable but widely exchanged by the same century, and probably earlier. Both plants became cash crops under colonial regimes. Tobacco helped sustain mercantilist and slave-trade economies, became a focus of colonial and postcolonial economic development efforts, and remains economically important. Cannabis was outlawed across most of the continent by 1920. Africans resisted its prohibition, and cannabis production remains economically significant despite its continued illegality.


African Populations and British Imperial Power, 1800–1970  

Karl Ittman

British views of African populations from 1800 to 1970 reflected the larger discourse about Africa in this period. These views shaped how the British state and private groups attempted to measure and influence African population trends. In the precolonial era, travelers painted a picture of an underpopulated continent ravaged by war and slavery. Malthus used these accounts in his depiction of African populations limited by insecurity, low productivity, and primitive customs. Malthus’s view would dominate British ideas of African population into the colonial era. Prior to that, missionary groups and antislavery activists invoked these ideas to justify efforts to change African customs through conversion and free labor. In the colonial era, the belief in underpopulation rationalized state interventions in African societies through forced labor and public health. Colonial regimes attempted to measure and classify their populations to facilitate taxation and administration. These early surveys failed to produce adequate results and estimates of African populations remained unreliable. Despite the absence of data, British officials and demographers continued to argue that lack of population represented a fundamental obstacle to development. Efforts to address this concern made little headway before the late 1930s, when the international criticism of empire forced British officials to embrace a more interventionist colonial state. Beginning in the late 1930s, British officials and demographers warned of signs of overpopulation, even though reliable census data remained elusive. As part of the postwar drive for development, officials used resettlement programs and agricultural schemes to improve productivity and to address presumed population pressure. In the late colonial era, the British allowed the creation of birth control clinics in African colonies. These private efforts became the basis of an international effort of population control focused on Africa that began in the late 1960s. Since the 1980s, scholars have created alternative explanations of African historical demography, relying on a variety of sources to challenge the existing paradigm.


The History and Historiography of Science  

Helen Tilley

There is no escaping the fact that the history of science took European places and people, broadly construed, as its original object of study. There is also no escaping that in African history, scholars interested in science, technology, and to a lesser extent environmental knowledge have concentrated the bulk of their investigative energies on developments since European (and North African) conquest. This focus on the period since the 1870s has tended to foreground dynamics relating to colonial rule and state-building, extractive economies and development, and decolonization and geopolitics. A handful of Africanists in the history of science have explicitly worked to cross the colonial divide, often taking single topics deeper back in time. The field as a whole, however, still needs to debate more systematically what the overarching narratives and benchmark phenomena should be for the precolonial periods. It also needs to grapple more explicitly with methodological tensions that arise from a focus on human agency and specific places (and the languages this requires) versus a focus on ideas, tools, and phenomena that transcend local or state containers (and the trade-offs this produces). As historians of science extend their reach into Africa’s pasts and bridge the colonial and post-colonial divides, it raises thorny questions about different approaches. Among others this includes how we produce histories of science, why they matter, and what we ought to bear in mind as we do. To this end, four goals are advanced here simultaneously: First, is the aim to open a dialogue with historians of science working outside Africa about ways Africanist scholarship speaks to and could be incorporated into the field as a whole (encouraging non-Africanists to consider the blind spots of “global” histories). Second, is the objective to draw attention to the pitfalls and benefits of different research methods and theoretical assumptions, especially as they relate to expert knowledge (an analysis that may be most useful for students entering the field). Third, is the ambition to explore a set of topics that connect deeper time periods to more recent developments (topics that invite critical scrutiny from specialists and generalists alike). Finally, is the desire to foreground the many different ways people across sub-Saharan Africa have initiated, responded to, and been incorporated into the production of knowledge. Africa has been a site of rich and varied epistemological and material experiments for millennia—some deleterious, some beneficial, and all imbued with different kinds of power. Acknowledging this long-standing history can serve to correct stereotypes that suggest otherwise. It can also contribute to debates within the history of science as the field continues to move away from its original focus on Europe and Europeans.


Ideological and Technological Exchanges in the Early Modern Atlantic  

Walter C. Rucker

Despite assumptions regarding the unidirectional flow of ideas and technologies from Europe to Atlantic Africa beginning in the 1440s, African-European interactions were far more complex and dynamic. The multilateral flow of concepts in the early Atlantic world had a precedent in the Mediterranean world. New and reintroduced concepts entering Iberia from North Africa and Arabia propelled sustained contacts between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Beginning with the Umayyad Caliphate’s conquest of Iberia until the defeat of the last Islamic stronghold in 1492, Iberian architecture, language, and science received waves of innovation from foreign sources. This constant cross-fertilization reintroduced Iberians and other Europeans—emerging from the early Middle Ages—to physics, astronomy, and geometry; navigational instruments like compasses, quadrants, and astrolabes; and seafaring technologies like lateen sails. This process of multilateral exchange and interaction set the stage for the complex engagements between Europeans and Atlantic Africans by the mid-15th century. Beginning with the Portuguese in the 1440s, Europeans engaged with Atlantic Africans and, together, developed commercial networks, political alliances, and social connections from Senegambia to Angola. Within these regions, a matrix of exchanges occurred that shaped the course of Atlantic history. Above and beyond the Columbian Exchange of agricultural products, Atlantic Africans introduced Europeans to an array of aquatic proficiencies; techniques associated with mineral extraction, mining and metallurgy, and crop cultivation; and herblore. Instead of understanding Atlantic Africa as a recipient of foreign ideas and innovations and in a state of dependency, communities in the region were partners within the many exchange networks through the 18th century. As they absorbed, internalized, and—in some cases—Africanized European ideas and technologies, Atlantic Africans also introduced Europeans to African innovations. As vectors of Atlantic African and Atlantic creole ideas, enslaved women and men fueled a broader range of exchanges in Western Hemisphere colonies.