Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 24

Knowledge in Africa: Some Historical Perspectives

The transfer of knowledge often is associated with great men (and their
students) who took a specialized form of knowledge from Europe to Africa and
other corners of their world. This view is presented in academic and popular
works and is relayed through vivid museum exhibitions and their striking
catalogues {2 pics}.1 George Basalla expressed it most forcefully close to 50
years ago.2 In a highly influential essay he wrote about how metropolitan
centres collected information, processed it into knowledge and diffused it to a
grateful world. In the periphery this knowledge accumulated around poles of
learning or hubs of knowledge. These colonial centres of calculation (Latour)
were initially dependent on the metropole and provided it with information. But
over time this colonial science broke away from the dominance of the
metropole and its poles of knowledge developed into national hubs capable of
original research.
But while Basalla's notion of 'colonial knowledge' referred to a derivative
imprint of metropolitan knowledge bringing positive change to the periphery,
others have interpreted 'colonial science' as an invading, hegemonic force
allied to imperialism and underdevelopment.3 Although fundamental in
bringing the study of the history of science to Africa, these contrasting
perspectives treated the continent as intellectually dormant and little more
than a blank slate on which Europeans inscribed their discoveries in fields like
zoology and botany.4
There was always a resistance to these views elsewhere in the world - one
thinks here especially of the voluminous writings of Joseph Needham and his
collaborators on the history of science in China or Marcel Griaule on the
cosmology of the Dogon of West Africa. In Australia Roy MacLeod pointed out
that "colonial science" developed in different ways in the Gambia and
Australia; that its development depends on local factors, stretching from
disease regimes to economic and political structures. And he developed the
notion of a 'moving Metropolis' that was not at all derivative.5
Another group of scholars has turned to study the transnational exchange of
knowledge, an area in which South Asia has become particularly important.6

Here historians have developed ideas about multidirectional flows in the

circulation of knowledge; about networks of knowledge that were global in
extent. And at the same time, they have developed an awareness of the ways
in which colonised people both contributed to these networks of knowledge
and acquired and adapted new forms of knowledge.7 Employing the
Geertzian dichotomy separating the local from the global, many attempt to
capture 'indigenous knowledge', a project that has proved particularly
influential in post-apartheid South Africa where government supports a wellfunded National Indigenous Knowledge Systems Office (NIKSO). 8
In this paper I do not argue that Africans developed independent scientific
cultures to rival that of the west. Rather, I want to examine how Africa
contributed to the global pursuit of knowledge. Following Harold Cooke, I
believe that science grew in Europe through the accumulation of information
and evidence produced and gathered in various parts of the world; that
knowledge has developed as a product of global networks, mutuality and
interaction.9 I am particularly curious about how Africa contributed to science
as a field of universal knowledge; and I am equally interested in the way in
which this contribution has been hidden by the rise of 'western science'. 10
I follow Peter Burke (& more distantly Lvi-Strauss) in understanding
knowledge to be the product of raw information that is processed, packaged
or cooked. One hundred years ago, the Swiss missionary Henri-Alexandre
Junod recognised that the Thonga of southeast Africa ordered and arranged
information in ways that explained their world. I think Lucien Lvy-Bruhl read
Junod and other field-anthropologists in a selective way when he discerned a
pre-logical thinking in the minds of 'primitives' and contrasted this with the
rationality of his 'modern' society. Junod recognised that the Thonga
'processed' information into knowledge but he also perceived a hierarchy of
knowledge systems. As a good Protestant, Junod believed in the civilizing
process set in motion by literacy, a theme later developed by Jack Goody who
went so far as to attribute the 'domestication of the savage mind' to the skills
of reading and writing.11

As a historian I find this an attractive theory, although I hesitate to attach

literacy to a forward march of civilization. I would prefer to talk in terms of the
interaction between what Ludwig Fleck called 'thought collectives'; ways in
which societies structure knowledge and give it meaning. According this
approach knowledge is not just the product of the great men and their
students who have cooked information into brilliant ideas. Knowledge is
rather 'tacit' or 'implicit', even 'hidden', made up of unspoken assumptions
learned in the process of an apprenticeship that brings a student into a
'thought collective'. So - knowledge is the product of a capacity to think and
process information but within specific 'thought styles', what Thomas Kuhn
called 'paradigms', marked by shared norms, standards and practices. What
is of interest to me as a historian is the way in which paradigms interact and
change; how societies pass on, acquire and exchange knowledge. For an
African historian, it is important to take up the call made by Henrika Kucklick
and Jeremy Vetter to stress the importance of fieldwork.12 .... Latour et al .
I start by looking at the knowledge system brought to Africa by early European
explorers and missionaries. This was based on similitudes found elsewhere,
most notable in the Bible, the great code through which Europeans made
sense of their world, & in the rediscovered Greek and Roman classics.
Looking at the establishment and development of the institutions through
which Europe gathered information and diffused knowledge remains an
important activity for the historian of Africa.13 But in this paper I want to
concentrate on the wave of global expansion that took amateurs in the field
out of Europe and into the corners of their world, particularly to central and
southern Africa. These footsoldiers of science were officers in colonial armies,
& the doctors and apothecaries who accompanied them; they were naval
officers and surgeons, colonial administrators and merchants in exotic
settings, and, most importantly, Christian missionaries. By looking at these
amateur scientists I believe we can (i) examine the history of knowledge in the
longue dure (ii) look at the local scholars and networks of knowledge on
which they drew (iii) suggest ways in which this African contribution was
hidden by the rise of a discourse about western science. My broad argument

is that a knowledge society needs a history of knowledge that encompasses

the contributions of all sectors of that society.

The primary concern of missionaries in Africa was to convert the heathen; but
their theological concerns overlapped with a deep, historical curiosity about
the natural world. Studying nature was a way of praising God by uncovering
the diversity and beauty of His creations. Missionaries were natural
intellectuals who found themselves in the field on the edge of empire. They
were also members of global institutions that gathered knowledge in various
parts of Africa and the world one has only to think of the Jesuits in Ethiopia,
the Dominicans in Mozambique and the Capuchins in the Congo in the 17 th
century. These men wrote extensively about the new and diverse plants,
animals and insects they discovered; and compared them with findings made
elsewhere in the world. The knowledge these men brought to Africa
overlapped and fused with local ways of explaining the natural and human
world. As in most parts of Europe, knowledge in Africa was carried orally at
this time. Knowledge was confined to limited areas, it was communal rather
than individual, and it was of a utilitarian nature. Many products of African
knowledge had a commercial value for Europeans - particularly herbal and
other remedies used to fight diseases. This gave a use-value in global trade
to a series of artefacts stretching from plants to mermaids ribs and unicorns
horns to bezoars and carbuncles. The causes of disease were often local in
nature but the effectiveness of these articles, as antidotes and remedies,
appealed to a much wider, world market. In this sense collecting was not just
about assembling objects; it was also about assembling the knowledge that
gave those objects both intellectual meaning and commercial value.
In the early 17thC Father Joao dos Santos described some startling diseases
in central & northern Mozambique such as the entaca that caused women to
dry up and die after taking a herb designed to terminate an unwanted
pregnancy. And a malady that brought on blindness between sunset and
sunrise. Even more startling were the antidotes to these ailments such as
drinking the juice of another herb within 24 hours of contracting the entaca, or

sleeping with a man in such a way as to pass the disease to him. Washing
the affected eyes in the drinking water of pigeons could cure the night
blindness, Dos Santos assured his readers.14 Marvels also made their way
into his book. He had heard that elephants lived for over 300 years and that
they could only breed and produce young after 100 years. He knew that
mermaids' long incisors could be shaped into beads used to counteract
haemorrhoids and to reduce menstruation pains.15 But Father Dos Santos
was also sceptical of many of the tales he heard. He doubted that enormous
eagles were capable of seizing elephants and dashing them on the ground, as
Marco Polo had claimed occurred on an island south of Madagascar. And
although he was frequently assured that snakebite could be cured by in turn
biting the reptile, he thought this to be a fiction.16
Eighty years later the Italian Capuchin Antonio Cavazzi produced a major
work on the kingdoms of the Congo, Angola and Matamba.17 Cavazzis
account of the fauna and flora of west-central Africa contained much of the
enchantment found in other contemporary descriptions of Africa. He described
flowers of such strong colouring that it was almost impossible to look at them
for any length of time. His elephants were giants whose tusks could hardly be
carried by two strong men, yet an ant could kill this pachyderm by climbing
into its trunk and biting its brain. His foxes could smell the decomposition of a
mans body before he had died. His blind serpent was equipped with heads at
the two extremities of its body. In this world, knowledgeable individuals could
extract powerful talismans from some of these animals: for the stones
extracted from the stomachs of elephants, monkeys and crocodiles served as
bezoars that provided an antidote to both paralysis and dizziness while
mermaids ribs could be shaped into beads that cleansed the air and assisted
the circulation of the blood. The carbuncle on the forehead of a local species
of wild boar was known as an antidote to all poisons and fevers.18
A new modernity entered Cavazzis work when he anthropomorphized
animals and divided them into species that could be compared across
continents. At the same time, he directly observed animals and their
behaviour, commented on plants (eight varieties of palm tree) and listened to
locals views on their utility. He also employed drawings to great effect to

document and inform his textual observations. These included the underside
of a mermaid (or woman fish) {1 pic}, and an oil palm (with, in the
background, a picture of African society that is not far different from European
society) and another of a cocoa tree (with, in the background, cannibals at
work cutting up their meal). In this last case he combined his scientific view
of Africa with a view of the dark practices of the continents inhabitants and
in the process showed how science (the illustration of the palm tree) could
not be separated from the personal (his view of the locals dark practices).
Jean Barbot incorporated Cavazzi's views of Africa with other images into his
great chronicle of the continent. These were large books whose size, cost
and annotated detail spoke of their authority {1 pic}.
As monopolistic trading companies fastened themselves to the rim of Africa,
knowledge of the coastal areas was gathered and accumulated more
securely. The Compagnie des Indes, the Royal Africa Company, the Dutch
West India Company and the Dutch East India Company drew Africa into new
global networks; and brought knowledgeable soldiers and company servants
to the islands and bays of the continent.19 They also provided bases for
scientific exploration and attracted to the continent specialist scientists increasingly under the aegis of metropolitan patrons such company directors
of the VOC like Joan Huydecoper and Nicolas Witsen. With the support of
Witsen, governor Simon van der Stel led an exploratory expedition north of
Cape Town in the 1680s {1 pic}. He and his companions gathered
information from the hunter-gatherers and pastoralists they met on their
journey they documented information about the properties to be drawn from a
range of plants - properties at once analgesic, antiseptic, diuretic, purgative
and carminative.20 Simon van der Stel established a small museum in the
Company Gardens in Cape Town and, together with the earlier governor
Johan Bax van Heerentals (16761678) and the later governor Ryk Tulbach
(17511771), sent consignments of medicinal and other plants to Leiden.21

The Dutch were quick to appreciate the medicinal properties of the plants they
came across in Africa. From the Guinea Coast of West Africa Willem Bosman

wrote in 1704 of the wonderful efficacy of the green herbs employed by

native healers and deplored that no European Physician has yet applied
himself to the discovery of their nature and virtue.22 Fifteen years later, at the
Cape of Good Hope, Peter Kolbe devoted a sizable part of his Description of
the region in 1791 to "the Hottentot Practice of Physick and Surgery". 23
Although the Hottentots had never dissected a body, they "have pretty good
notions of the human anatomy" he wrote, and they practised their profession
"with much surprising dexterity".24 Kolbe described with admiration the salves,
ointments, powders, infusions and poultices prepared by Hottentot
Physicians. These men had "great skill in the Vertues of their Herbs" and
knew how to bleed and cup patients, perform amputations and restore
dislocations. They constituted a profession that guarded its skills and
separated itself from "old women (who) pretend to great skill in the Vertues of
Roots and Herbs".25 Their medical skills compared favourably with those of
Europeans. "Great cures are performed" by "Hottentot Doctors", he wrote
such as, perhaps, could not be performed by the ablest Physicians or
Surgeons in Europe. The Hottentots who give themselves to the Study of
Medicine are generally well skilled in the Hottentot Botany. They have
some excellent Notions of the Vertues of the Multitude of Herbs and
Roots that are produced in the Hottentot Countries; and often apply Herbs
and Roots in very difficult and dangerous Cases with wonderful Success.
Kolbe's Description of the Cape is today regarded as the first scientific
monograph on peoples, plants and animals of the southwestern edge of
South Africa. But it, too, contained aspects of plagiarism and imagination
{elephant-rhinoceros; sealion - 5 pics}.

A new concern with scientific accuracy is present in the Itinerrio of Jeronimo

Lobo, a Jesuit working in Ethiopia in the mid-late 17thC.26 Or so believed
Samuel Johnson, the major figure in English life and letters, when he
translated the book into English in 1735. Johnson reassured his readers that it
contained no romantick absurdities or incredible fictions ... whatever he
relates, whether true or not, is at least probable he appears to have
described things as he saw them, to have copied nature from life, and to have
consulted his senses, not his imagination".

And indeed, Jernimo Lobo did dare to criticize Pliny the Elders statement
that elephants had no joints and that they had to sleep standing up. He was
also sceptical of the idea (found in the Physiologus) that ostriches ate red-hot,
heated iron bars though he accepted it as a possibility.27 But he did - like so
many others - report on the unicorn. Except that he described different
species of unicorns those in a neighbouring province had short tails, while
those living further away have long tails and manes that go down to the
ground. At Mozambique Island, he reported, moonlight killed those who
failed to wear hats outside in September; and straw had to be placed on brass
bells and canon to protect them from the damaging moonlight. Elsewhere,
he recounted that bodiless voices could be heard in one, particularly dry place
where people simply disappeared. Lobo also recycled descriptions of snakes
that had in their heads a stone like a bezoar (the size of an egg) that had
powers against poison. He believed the bezoar and the unicorns horn to be
the most effective antidotes against snake-bite though when he fell ill with
fever they did not seem to help him as much as goat urine, or bleeding by an
Ethiopian villager using animal horns and a wad of paper.28

What I am trying to point out is that the pre-Enlightenment sensibilities of

Europeans and Africans were close to one another, and that early Europeans
probably acquired much of their knowledge from locals. There was an easy
compatibility and convergence in early modern Europe between ideas drawn
from the Old Testament, the Greek and Roman Classics, and the discoveries
made on the fringes of Europe's world such as Africa. Some of these images
could still be found in Africa well into the twentieth century: the picture of the
double-headed snake, the powers of a bezoar-like stone, and the individuals
belief that he or she could pass on a malady by sleeping with an unsuspecting

At this time European contact with Africa was confined to the coast, or to
islands off the coast & little was known about the interior of the continent. It
was from slaves in the Americas that Europeans acquired much of their

knowledge about Africa. Let us remember that three-quarters of all immigrants

to the Americas between 1500 and 1820 came from Africa. Recently Judith
Carney has shown how West Africans brought rice to the Carolinas and the
skills needed to grow it.30 African therapeutic traditions thrived in the New
World, especially on plantations manned by large numbers of African
slaves.31 Although they practiced in an uneasy relationship on the plantations
with European doctors, African healers included masters and their friends
amongst their clients. This expanding medical culture fed off a bricolage of
new discoveries and could be seen on both sides of the Atlantic.32

As comparison became a crucial aspect of botany & zoology, patrons of

science like Linneaus and Joseph Banks encouraged their students to collect
plants in Sierra Leone and the Cape, African colonies run by commercial
companies.33 This produced a new form of knowledge increasingly distinct
from that practised by Africans. Individuals like Michel Adanson in Senegal,
Henry Smeathman in Sierra Leone, Palisot de Beauvois in the Bight of Benin,
and Johann Koenig, Franois le Vaillant, Anders Sparrman, Carl Thunberg
and Francis Masson at the Cape of Good Hope published works on natural
history for a growing reading public curious about Africa and other
undiscovered corners of their world. They strove above all to produce
truthful sources of evidence that could be trusted by their readers. Their work
had to be original, informative and unsullied by plagiarism. It had to withstand
the criticism of their peers and win a trustworthy place in authoritative journals
and publishing houses. Their reputations came to rest on their ability to
correct the mistakes of earlier generations and to provide their texts with
enlightened commentaries and with references to their sources of evidence.
The gratification of curiosity that had marked earlier works on nature was
increasingly replaced by a more systematic approach to its study. This
growing disenchantment of the world, with its regimes of truth, joined
scientists in a thought collective that increasingly separated them from what
they saw as 'old women' (Kolbe), alchemists and magicians, both at home
and abroad.

Linneaus' student Anders Sparrman provides a good example of this growing

concern with scientific accuracy. In his account of his stay in South Africa, he
assures his readers that he is a man of science, knows Linnaeus, has a
doctorate, is a member of the Royal academy of Science of Stockholm & of
several other learned societies. During his exploration, he tells us he was
fired with the love of science and the truth, he has a passionate regard for
the truth. He was particularly critical of earlier scientists like Kolb (a stayat-home who failed to travel widely). He was also critical of the beliefs of local
farmers who, for example, wanted to capture an example of a species of
hermaphrodite hyena. He says that he has often been asked to comment on
the existence of prodigies and uncommon appearances in Africa. But that
he considers "men with one foot, cyclops, satyres, troglodytes, etc to be
imaginary beings and that they will not to be found in my journal. His book
contains a long, detailed, and quite fascinating chapter on elephants and a
17-page description of the black (African) rhinoceros (that Kolb had plated in
armour). He also included new and careful descriptions and drawings of
various animals (still little known in Europe), such as the giraffe and the
springbok. So, just as the modern reader is convinced of reading a real work
of science, Sparrman announces that, reading from a San rock painting, it is
obvious that a unicorn had once lived in the Agter Bruntjes Hoogte area near
Somerset East! And indeed, a unicorn's horn, brought back from southern
Africa, would grace the LMS museum well into the 19C {1 pic}.
Much of the information sent to Europe from Africa was processed into
knowledge in metropolitan centres of calculation. In sites of learning such as
the botanical gardens in Leiden, Vienna or London, the British Museum or the
Natural History museums in Paris and later Berlin. In these centres of
calculation experts classified and compared fossil remains, plants, animals
and other objects and developed theories to explain their existence and
evolution. Explorers, travellers, traders and company officials initially supplied
the metropolitan museums with the data on which the experts developed their
theories. This was particularly the case at the Cape of Good Hope where an
enlightened Dutch republican government (1803-6) brought scientists to the
Cape who, like Hinrich Lichtenstein {1 pic}, would play a leading role on their

return to Europe in the establishment and professionalization of various

scientific disciplines.
The establishment of British rule at the Cape brought some leading
metropolitan scientists to Africa. But it was only in the mid-1820s that hubs of
knowledge started to emerge in this outpost of the British empire on the
southwest tip of Africa. A small community of collectors had emerged in Cape
Town by this time and, with the support of the colonial state, they arranged for
an army doctor to establish a museum; and then paid for an expedition he
would lead into the interior. On his return, Andrew Smith constantly called on
these collectors to support his museum and its journal and he stressed their
right not just to collect specimens, but to organise and explain them. The men
who supported this colonial knowledge were residents at the Cape who
came from different nations English & Scots, but also Germans and French
(J. Herschell, C.F. Ludwig, L. Krebs, J. Drge, C. Villet, P. Delalande,
Verreaux brothers). Here the object of Natural History research became not
just the accumulation of knowledge & fame; but increasingly the living wage,
prizes and state decorations that it won for individuals. Fieldwork in parts of
Africa also became the sine qua non for men of science seeking to establish
knowledge disciplines in Europe and the institutions on which to base them
(Hinrich Lichtenstein and Wilhelm Peters in Berlin stand out in this regard).
The British Admiralty played an important role in establishing and developing
the networks of knowledge linking these men of science with other parts of
Africa and the world. Its warships were captained by men trained from an
early age in astronomy, hydrography and engineering; and were manned by
surgeons familiar with a range of herbal remedies and medicines. Captains
gave berths on their ships to scientists working for metropolitan experts
(J.Forbes up Zambezi, 1823; Wilhelm Peters in the 1840s - who would
replace Lichtenstein in Berlin; Edgar Layard 1850s).34 John Hershel would go
on to prepare a Manual of Scientific Enquiry for the Admiralty in1849 (a
collection of essays by foremost scientists - including Charles Darwin).
As Saul Dubow has shown, this intellectual community at the Cape produced
a local nationalism that included a broad, cosmopolitan, notion of what it was
to be both British and South African. This identity was centred on

institutions such as the SA Museum, the SA Library, the Royal Observatory,

the botanical gardens, and various learned societies; as well as a range of
journals that we might qualify as scientific. Middle-class colonists of
European descent made up the core of this community, but it did not exclude
Africans (who contributed to it artefacts of human manufacture and specimens
of plant and animal life as well as the information that gave meaning to
these items).
This colonial science had its own methodology (William Burchell) - the oxwagon that served as a travelling museum and laboratory {2 pics}; and its own
set of values; a pride in the diversity of the African landscape and in the
authenticity and originality of a primitive wilderness little changed since first
made by God. Knowledge was made in spaces outside institutions like
musems, herbaria, etc. e.g. apothecaries shops, officers mess and
sleeping quarters in naval vessels, coffee houses, pubs, all encouraging what
Raj Kapil calls recherche en plein air. As Ronald Numbers & David L.
Livingstone have shown, these colonial scientists - which included a very few
women - such as Mary Barber - by mid-century - had their own ways of
interpreting works such as Darwins Origin of Species. At the centre of this
science in the colonies was the iconic figure of the sturdy fieldworker looking
to find objects in their natural and social context rather than the metropolitan
expert who uprooted these objects and displayed them in museums where
they took on a meaning different from the one they had in situ, in the field. Yet
the primary task of the colonial fieldworker was to recognize the diversity and
authenticity of the natural world in Africa and to bring it to the attention of the
metropolitan experts who ordered it (& subjected it to a controlled
modernization and progress).
While army officers, colonial officials and amateur collectors (who lived from
this activity) were at the heart of this knowledge in colonial institutions, a new
generation of missionaries worked in the field, often beyond the political
frontier. The most successful of these missionary naturalists was David
Livingstone. Imperial institutions threw their weight behind the scientific aims
of Livingstones Zambezi expedition in the late 1850s in a way that was still
rare in the metropole. The Foreign Office provided Livingstone with consular

authority and a salary of 500 a year; Parliament voted an annual sum of

5,000 to the enterprise; the Royal Navys anti-slavery squadron (based at
Simonstown) ferried missionaries along the coast; Kew Gardens, the British
Museum, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal
School of Mines and, particularly, the Royal Geographic Society (RGS),
assisted the project in a multitude of ways. It gained the backing of influential
metropolitan intellectuals, such as Richard Owen (zoology) and Sir Roderick
Murchison (geology).35 Joseph Hooker drew up the Principal Duties
Expected of the Botanist for John Kirk, the expeditions Economic Botanist.36
The Royal Geographical Society led this process by creating a media
sensation about his geographical discoveries, the press built his reports on
the slave trade into a reinvigorated moral crusade, and the leading publishing
house of John Murray turned his account of the expedition into an
international best-seller.37 Livingstone felt he could make central Africa better
known in the world and thereby indirectly affect the slave trade' by gathering
considerable collections of plants, birds and insects together with vegetable,
animal and mineral productions. Like Burchell, Livingstone also considered
collecting to be a patriotic duty, for members of the expedition were honourbound to offer any collections they took home to government museums so as
to preserve their findings for the nation.38 He was a thoroughly modern
missionary who scoffed at oft-repeated tales of horned-men three feet high,
unicorns, or moon-blindness (other than the type caused by a lack of vitamin
His books, articles and letters are full of descriptions of climate, environment,
geology, palaeontology, mammals, birds, snakes, frogs, insects and plants.
He reported on the behaviour of numerous species of wildlife; and
documented for the first time the existence of both pygmy elephants and
several new species of antelope. He was familiar with the findings of earlier
naturalists such as William Burchell and Andrew Smith and he counted the
naturalist-hunter William Oswell as a close friend.
More sedentary missionaries became important observers of nature through
their knowledge of native languages, their intimate relationship with Christian
converts, and their long presence in a place often far-removed from colonial

towns. By the turn of the century, missionaries in different parts of Africa led
research in different areas of entomology & botany, mineralogy, geology &
palaeontology, meteorology &, especially, tropical medicine, cartography,
linguistics and anthropology.
In the field, missionaries came into contact with African ways of seeing and
explaining nature. For Africans, this acquisition of knowledge started in
childhood when boys were required to look after the cattle and sheep and girls
were needed to protect the crops from birds and rodents. This kept children
in the field for long periods where they learned about the small animals they
could catch and cook, and about the plants they could eat. Those who
became hunters later in life especially professional hunters had to know
about large animals and birds; just as those who became herbalists had to
know about the medical and nutritional, as well as the sartorial and
intoxicating, properties of plants. Diviners also explored the natural world and
in many ways produced a true science. Their attempt to capture its powers
and unlock the secrets of providence were little different from those of
astrologers and alchemists in Europe. The skills of an agriculturalist included
an ability to calculate the patterns of nature so as to optimise output; and this
knowledge fused with a natural philosophy that, through various rituals,
improved the chances of success or, perhaps, explained failure. Fishermen,
hunters and metallurgists had their own ways of observing, explaining and
exploiting the regularities of nature.
When Africans had a use for plants and animals they gave them distinct
names: Thonga informants told the Swiss missionary, Henri-Alexandre Junod
about the names of 92 different plants, and compiled a long list of the birds
and animals, of south-east Africa; Edwin Smith said the Ila (of todays
Zambia) distinguished between 72 different species of tree and gave 24
names to different grasses. They also provided him with the names of 45
species of birds, as well as long lists of the different mammals and fish they
ate. The Anglican missionary John Roscoe noted that the Baganda had
names for well over 40 varieties of plantain and 66 for different types of
barkcloth. In south-eastern Nigeria, another Anglican missionary, G. T.
Basden, was aware of the names given by the Ibo to well over twenty

varieties of yam. The Catholic Trappist father, and lecturer in African Studies
at Wits, Alfred Bryant, gathered a list of 240 medicinal plants that, he thought,
constituted only a third of the medicinal plants known to native specialists in
Zululand and Natal. Father Bryant depended on Zulu assistants to collect
plants, something that led him to believe that an average Zulu was quite
astonishingly learned in the domain of his own environment and could boast
of a larger share of pre-scientific knowledge than the average European.
Bryant shared this view with Junod and others.
In tropical parts of Africa Europeans often depended for their survival on the
skills of African healers.40 Africans were sufficiently confident in their
knowledge to reject some of the views about nature held by Europeans: the
idea that animals could be divided into lower types seemed nonsense to
people who ate with relish certain beetles, locusts, caterpillars & ants (and
named them and knew where to find them). At the Cape in 1820, a party of
slaves was horrified when they were obliged to dig up the corpse of a man
drowned after escaping from Robben Island. And their revulsion grew
markedly when their master [Ludwig Krebs] severed the head from the
corpse, wrapped it in a handkerchief and placed it in a box. What the slaves
master saw as craniology, these slaves clearly saw as witchcraft! 41 In some
parts, Africans criticised the methods used by European doctors to treat
malaria, such as bleeding and mercury.42 They might also have been
sceptical of mesmerism or the power of European royalty to cure 'scrofula'.
They might also have questioned the powers given to a single God by Natural
Theology, a philosophy that at mid-century explained nature to most
Europeans. But some Africans adopted the practices brought by Europeans,
and made them their own in ways that provided them with new sources of
power and social mobility. The acquisition of literacy provides a clear example
of the ways in which knowledge systems were not hermetically sealed.43
Medicine provides another example of the ways in which African healers
adopted European remedies and practices or, in KZN, how Indians and
African ways of dealing with medical ailments came together (Flint)

II. The Great Divergence:

The expansion of imperial power in the mid-nineteenth century contributed in
a meaningful way to the development of a 'great divergence' between medical
practices centred in Europe and Africa. The terms under which the transfer of
knowledge between the two continents took place changed markedly as
Europeans took hold of Africa. Increasingly, the continent became a site for
the collection of raw information to be transformed into useful knowledge by
professional scientists in the European metropole. As naturalists moved into
the African interior with the aid of quinine, colonial governments and private
institutions, Europe became the repository and archive of specimens collected
by innumerable footsoldiers of science. Professional experts in the metropole
named, compared and classified plants and medical procedures, and
subjected them to investigation. They increasingly turned to study the
morphology of plants and the function of their chemical elements. From these
plants chemists developed new drugs like quinine and strychnine and
painkillers like morphine and aspirin. Research on bacteria located the cause
of scourges like leprosy and cholera. In Britain a general medical council
controlled access to the ranks of the medical profession and guarded the
contents of the national pharmacoepia.44 This new medical knowledge
circulated and spread in Europe with the growth of literacy and advances in
the fields of printing and communications. Although this scientific revolution is
indelibly associated with individual researchers like Pierre-Joseph Pelletier,
Louis Pasteur or Robert Koch, the knowledge on which they built their
theories was cumulative and drawn from many parts of the world.45 In Africa,
Scottish missionaries became particularly visible in this process when they
engaged in what we would call 'bioprospecting' in the mid-nineteenth century.
From the Niger Delta to the highlands of south-central Africa they turned to
knowledgeable Africans to locate plants that could be sent home for analysis.
Experts in Edinburgh and London then isolated the plants' chemical elements
and used them to develop a range of drugs employed in the treatment of
various ailments.46

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, as the colonial state created
departments and university positions, professional scientists started to replace
the amateurs. Even within the missionary societies a new scientific rigour
gained ground as doctors trained in the new, biological medicine replaced
missionaries equipped with only a cursory knowledge of healing. In this new
climate of confidence, Europeans quickly reduced African drugs and medical
practices to the categories of 'magic' and 'superstition' and healers and
diviners to 'witchdoctors'.47 In 1891 in KZN the state required inyangas to be
licenced, in a way that made it far more difficult for Indians to practice in this
field (Flint, 182).
A missionary like Henri-Alexandre Junod provides a good example of this shift
in thinking. As a missionary, Junod filled his spare time with botany and
entomology. He had a great respect for Africans as observers of nature
they were people who knew where to find specific animals and plants,
distinguish between them, and note their behaviour. Junod remarked that the
Thonga classified plants into groups broadly resembling genera and even
species; and he thought their botanical knowledge was the product of what he
called a true and, in a certain sense, scientific observation on their part. It
was perhaps comparable to that of our forefathers of two or three hundred
years ago, before botany became a true science. He found a notion of
order in the way the natives divided mammals into broad groups and he saw
that they even distinguished between four classes of wasps. A range of
different taboos also provided people with the means to group plants and
animals in specific categories.
As professionals moved into the fields of botany and entomology, Junod
turned to examine the social life of the people amongst whom he lived, quickly
linking his interest in science with an equal passion for the study of society. In
a chapter entitled 'medical art' he wrote in 1898 that the Ronga people (the
southern group in the Thonga cluster) treated illnesses with 30-40 different
drugs that were applied in a variety of therapeutic ways. But he also drew a
line between these 'medical practices' and the 'superstitions' that often
accompanied them. He considered that Ronga medicine had a very limited

notion of Pathology and Anatomy and that herbalists and healers were
specialists unable to treat more than one or two diseases. Most seriously,
medicine could be used for malicious purposes as easily as for beneficial
Almost thirty years later, when Junod published the second edition of his twovolume Life of a South African Tribe, he was far more critical of Thonga
medicine. In the intervening years he had adopted an evolutionist approach to
his understanding of what he defined as the Thonga 'tribe'. In a chapter now
entitled 'Magic' he wrote that 'there may be true scientific elements in Thonga
medical practice (but) the medical art passes with the greatest ease into the
domain of magic, all the more so as the difference between Science and
Magic is not perceived'.49
Junod was also critical of other shortcomings in the knowledge of native
naturalists (the fact that they showed no interest in the morphology of plants
and were unable to explain the respiratory function of leaves or distinguish
between male and female plants; or the functions of hidden parts of the
anatomy of humans, animals and plants). From his teleological perspective,
indeed a positivistic perspective, the practice of divination reflected an early
stage of scientific development (much like alchemy and astrology - with its
own tools, categories and explanations). But divination was nonetheless a
backward, outmoded (and irresponsible) practice from which native peoples
needed to be liberated by science (and Christianity). But he nonetheless
recognized their contribution to scientific endeavour and, like many other
missionary naturalists, frequently named the women, men and children who
helped him. But Junod now discerned a hierarchy of knowledge based on a
two-storey model with only a narrow stairway between them. He saw science
as a value-free, objective ordering of knowledge that was strictly separated
from folklore and custom. This was 'the age of the optic nerve' R.L. Stevenson
would write critically, an age that regulated and patrolled the borders of
science and that relegated imagination to the realm of superstition and magic.

III. Colonial State

As the British erected a modern state in South Africa at the start of the 20 th
century, amateurs like missionaries lost their place in the construction of
knowledge. While government departments came to focus on economic
botany and entomology, the universities placed a new stress on the laboratory
sciences of plant anatomy and embryology, mycology and bacteriology, and
focused research on distinct categories of plants [such as Phanerograms
(seed-bearing plants) and Cryptograms (that produce spores) or the fungi
studied by plant pathologists]. Missionary savants inevitably played a
diminishing role in areas of research ever-more dominated by scholars
working with new technology in specialized areas of, increasingly, distinct
scientific disciplines. A caste of professors and professionals emerged as
bright young graduates from metropolitan universities came to the colonies to
establish or develop nodes of learning and scientific authority. Despite their
dependence on British and American universities, these institutions quickly
developed into centres of scientific research and teaching with their own
growing, national autonomy.
Knowledge-producing institutions in the colonies built their authority and
professionalism on their ties of sociability, training and experience with
metropolitan centres. International recognition cemented the authority of the
professionals in the laboratory but increasingly separated them from the
amateurs familiar with the languages and knowledge systems of native
peoples. And in the process the university professionals built the strength of
their disciplines and institutions on an understanding of science that was
increasingly divorced from native practitioners in the field.
While knowledge became more abundant and was more easily obtained,
through public schooling and the networks created by modern technology,
and could be seen as liberating, it also became tied more indefatigably to the
European metropole. From this perspective, it could be seen as controlling
and even dehumanizing. Some Africans found an upward mobility and a
source of power in this new definition of knowledge; but for many it was a
means of exclusion that confined them to a world of tradition and
superstition strictly separated from the modernity and progress associated
with the colonial project.

In time, science became a western product that overlooked the long

contribution of indigenous knowledge to its development. The declining
influence of missionaries in a field increasingly dominated by professionals
facilitated the emergence of a new concept of science and, with it, an
accompanying discourse. This was the discourse that carried western
science from the imperial centre to the colonial periphery; and from hubs on
the outskirts of empire to a grateful hinterland. In the process, local ways of
naming, ordering and explaining nature were lost or ignored, and the power of
science was irrevocably tied to a modernising project underscored by a
mission aimed at bettering and civilizing native peoples. In the process, the
history of science occluded the work of amateur naturalists, as well as the
knowledge provided by their indigenous informants and assistants. One task
of the historian of Africa is to uncover the contribution of native peoples to
western science and to underline the global nature of knowledge. Another is
to employ the social sciences to challenge the positivistic, hagiographic and
teleological traditions that dominate the history of science. And in the process
to show how fragile and tentative is the expert opinion that dominates
modern life today.

See Siegfried Huigen, Knowledge and Colonialism: Eighteenth-century travellers in South

Africa (Brill, Leiden, 2009); Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (London, 2008); IZIKO Le
Vaillant exhibition; Stow exhibition; British Museum books.

George Basalla, The Spread of Western Science, Science (1967) 156. For a more critical
approach, Srlin, Sverker, Ordering the World for Europe: Science as Intelligence and
Information as Seen from the Northern Periphery Osiris (2000) 15.

Joseph Needham and his collaborators rejected this view entirely in their writings on the
history of science in China. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Cambridge,
1954-95, 7 vols.

Sujit Sivasundaram, Sciences and the Global: On Methods, Questions, and Theory, Isis,
(2010) 101: 1, p.154; Londa Schiebinger, Forum Introduction: The European Colonial
Science Complex, Isis (2005) 96, p. 52. Pioneering works employing this approach
include Robert A. Stafford, Scientist of Empire: Sir Roderick Murchison, Scientific
Exploration and Victorian Imperialism (Cambridge, 1989); Lucy Brockway, Science and
colonial expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens (New York, 1979); Roy
MacLeod and Philip F. Rhebock (eds.), Darwins Laboratory: Evolutionary Theory and
Natural History in the Pacific (Honolulu, 1994); David Philip Miller and Peter Hans Reill
(eds.), Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany and Representations of Nature (Cambridge,
1996); Nicolaas A. Rupke, Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist (London, 1994), pp.80-83.

Roy MacLeod, 'On visiting the 'Moving Metropolis': Reflections on the Architecture of
Imperial Science' Historical Records of Australian Science 5, 3, 1982, 1-16.

Gyan Prakash, Another Reason. Science and the Imagination of Modern India, Princeton
1999, Toby E. Huff, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution. A Global
Perspective, Cambridge 2010, David W. Chambers and, Richard Gillespie, Locality in the
History of Science. Colonial Science, Technoscience, and Indigenous Knowledge, in: Osiris,
Vol. 15, 2000, pp.221-240, Schiebinger, Introduction, p. 53, Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern
Science. Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 16501900, London, 2007, Manolis Patiniotis et al., Science and Technology in the European
Periphery. Some Historiographical Reflections, in: History of Science, Vol. 46, 2008, pp.
153-175, Patrick Harries, Butterflies and Barbarians. Swiss Missionaries and Systems of
Knowledge in Southeast Africa, Oxford 2007.)

E. G. Musselman, Plant Knowledge at the Cape: A Study in African and European

Collaboration in: International Journal of African Historical Studies, 36, 2, 2003; W.
Beinart, K. Brown, D. Gilfoyle, Experts and expertise in colonial Africa reconsidered:
Science and the Interpenetration of Knowledge in: African Affairs 108, 2009; Harries,
Butterflies and Barbarians, esp. chs 5, 6.

The South African government developed an indigenous knowledge systems policy in

2004 and a National Indigenous Knowledge Systems Office (NIKSO). 'Indigenous
Knowledge Systems Policy', (Department of Science and Technology, Pretoria, 2004);
www.nikso.co.za. See also the Traditional Health Practitioners Act, 2004. (No. 35 of 2004).
A national archival and knowledge management project is led by the); promulgated laws
aiming to regulate traditional healing (Republic of South Africa 2004b). E- Musselman et al

Harold Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch
Golden Age (New Haven, 2007), 414-16.

. Helen Tilley, Global Histories, Vernacular Science, and African Genealogies; or, Is the
History of Science Ready for the World?, in: Isis, Vol. 101, No. 1, 2010, pp. 110-119, Marwa
Elshakry, When Science Became Western. Historiographical Reflections, Vol. 101, No. 1
,2010, pp. 98-109.


Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, 1977)

Kucklick, 'Personal Equations: Reflections on the History of Fieldwork, with Special

Reference to Sociocultural Anthropology' Isis 102, 1, 2011; Vetter, ed., Knowing Global
Environments: New Historical Perspectives on the Field Sciences (New Brunswick, Rutgers
U.O., 2011)


See most notably Saul Dubow, A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and
White South Africa 1820-2000 (Oxford, 2006)

. Dos Santos, Ethiopia Oriental, book one, chapter xxvi; book two, chapter xii.


. Ibid., Dos Santos, Ethiopia Oriental, book one, chapters xxv, xxvii; book two chapters
vii, xvi.

. Ibid., Dos Santos, Ethiopia Oriental, book one, chapters xxiii, xxiv.


. John K. Thornton, New Light on Cavazzis Seventeenth-Century Description of Kongo

History in Africa 6, 1979, p.253.

. Cavazzi, Relation historique de lEthiopie Occidentale (1687, French ed. Paris, 1732),
pp. 151, 153, 156, 163-64, 175, 178, 186, 201.

Siegfried Huigen, Jan L. de Jong, Elmer Kolfin eds., The Dutch Trading Companies as
Knowledge Networks (Brill, Leiden, 2010)

M.L. Wilson, T. Toussaint van Hove-Exalto, W.J.J. van Rijssen, eds., Codex Witsenii
(Davidii Media, Amsterdam, 2002), pp. 28, 40, 9495, 13233, 13637; D.O. Wijnands, M.L.
Wilson, T. Toussaint, eds., Jan Commelin's Monograph on Cape Flora: Drawings and
Descriptions of the Plants That the Hon. Simon van der Stel, Governor of the Cape of Good
Hope, Found on his Great Journey, 1685 (Cape Town, 1996)

R.P. Brienen, Nicolas Witsen and his circle: globalisation, art patronage, and collecting in
Amsterdam circa 1700 in Nigel Worden (ed,), Contingent Lives: Social Identity and Material
Culture in the VOC World (Cape Town, 2007); 'Correspondence between Carl von Linne and
C. Rijk Tulbagh, Governor of the Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope: including a list of
203 specimens sent in or about the year 1767 to Uppsala' Proceedings of the Linnean Society,
130th session, 191718 (London, 1918).

Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of Guinea, Divided into the Gold, the Slave and
the Ivory Coast (1704, translated from the Dutch by .... London, 1705), p.225

Chapter XXV of his The Present State of the Cape of Good Hope (1719, translated from
German by Mr Medley (London, Innys and Mauby, 1738). This & following quotes will need
to be in original German.

Vol I, pp.3045


Kolbe, vol I, pp.8788, 3047.


Jernimo Lobo, The Itinerrio of Jernimo Lobo (London, 1984, trans D. M Lockhart
from the Portuguese MS, n.d 1660s-70s, ed., M.G. da Costa)

Lobo, Itinerrio, pp.97, 163, 166-67. Jean-Francois de Rome also criticized the idea that
a tropical climate produced black skins, Fondation de la mission, p. 103.

. Lobo, Itinerrio, pp.41, 60, 137, 166. Jena-Francois de Rome also mentions local
practices of cupping and bleeding. Fondation de la mission, pp.120-21.


. Cf. In the Grassfields of Cameroon. Hastings in Church in Africa, p.75; Edwin Smith
and Andrew Dale, The Ila-speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia (London, 1920), II, p.224;
H.-A. Junod, The Life of a South African Tribe (London, 1927), I, pp.393, 406; II, pp.339,

J. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas ( );
Carney and R. N. Rosomoff, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africas Botanical Legacy in the
Atlantic World (Berkeley, 2009)

James Sweet, Domingos Alvares: African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the
Atlantic World (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2011); N. Z. Davis, 'Decentering History: Local Stories
and Cultural Crossings in a Global World' History & Theory 50, May, 2011.

Walter Hawthorne, From Africa to Brazil: Culture, Identity and an Atlantic Slave Trade,
16001830 (Cambridge, 2011); Sharla Fett, Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on
Southern Slave Plantations (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2001); Kalle Kananoja, 'Healers, Idolators,
and Good Christians: A Case Study of Creolization and Popular Religion in Mid-Eighteenth
Century Angola' International Journal of African Historical Studies 43, 3, 2010.

See especially the first herbal produced in South Africa, Carl Thunberg's Dissertatio de
Medicina Africanorum (1785).

John Herschel (ed.), Admiralty Manual of Scientific Enquiry; Prepared for the Use of Her
Majestys Navy: and Adapted for Travellers in General (London: John Murray, 1849), xi +
488 pp.; 2nd ed. in 1851; 3rd in 1859; 4th 1871; 5th in 1886. JHs publications in this volume
are the preface (pp. vix), the article Meteorology (pp. 268322), as well as the Appendix
(pp. 1113) to the article Astronomy and the Appendix (pp. 4414) to the article
Ethnology. The last item was reprinted in EEQR, pp. 74550.

. Nicolaas A. Rupke, Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist (New Haven and London, 1994),
p.364n39; Robert A Stafford, Scientist of Empire: Sir Roderick Murchison, scientific
exploration and Victorian imperialism (Cambridge, 1989), p.174-79.

. Lawrence Dritsas, Zambesi; Civilising Missions, Natural History and British Industry:
Livingstone in the Zambezi Endeavour 30, 2, 2006; D. Liebowitz, The Physician and the
slave trade: John Kirk, the Livingstone expeditions and the crusade against slavery in East
Africa (New York, 1999);

. Felix Driver, Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire (Oxford, 2001),
chapters 2, 4.

. Clendennen, 1992, p.72.


. David & Charles Livingstone, Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi and its
tributaries (London, 1865, new ed 2005), pp. 148, 249, 437.

Paul Jenkins and Daniel Antwi, 'The Moravians, the Basel Mission and the Akuapem
State in the early Nineteenth Century' in Christian Missionaries and the State in the Third
World (Athens, Ohio, 2002), eds., Holger Hansen and Michael Twaddle, p.41; Jon Miller,
Missionary Zeal and Institutional Control (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003), p.144; K. Flint,
Healing Traditions: African Medicine, Cultural Exchange, and Competition in South Africa
(Athens, Ohio, 2008) pp??. See also Lobo, The Itinerrio, pp.67-68


. Lichtenstein, Travels in Southern Africa in the Years 1803, 1804, 1805, and 1806
(London, 1812), translated by A Plumptre; Pamela ffolliott & Richard Liversidge, Ludwig
Krebs: Cape Naturalist to the King of Prussia/1820-28 (Cape Town, 1971), pp.23-24

. Thomas Boteler, Narrative of a Voyage of discovery to Africa and Arabia (London,

1835), vol. II, pp.255, 271, 284

Harries, 'Marxists, Missionaries and Magic: ... Literacy' JSAS 2001

Roy Porter, ed., Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine (Cambridge, 1996), pp.132-


Steffan Mller-Wille, 'History of Science and Medicine' in Oxford Handbook of the

History of Medicine (Oxford, 2011), pp. 474-75

. Aneba Dove Osseo-Asare, Bioprospecting and Resistance: Transforming Poisoned

Arrows into Strophanin Pills in Colonial Gold Coast, 1885-1922 Social History of Medicine
21, 2, 2008;Markku Hokkanen, 'Imperial Networks, Colonial Bioprospecting and Burroughs
Wellcome & Co.: The Case of Strophanus Kombe from Malawi (1859-1915)' Social History
of Medicine, ??, 2012

John and Jean Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: The Dialectics of Modernity on a
South African Frontier (Chicago, 1997), pp.328-29, 354; Adam Mohr, 'Missionary Medicine
and Akan Therapeutics: Illness, Health and Healing in Southern Ghana's Basel Mission,
1828-1918' Journal of Religion in Africa 39, 2009, pp448-51; K. Flint, Healing Traditions.

Junod, 'Les Ba-Ronga: tude ethnographique sur les indignes de la baie de Delagoa'
Bulletin de la Socit Neuchteloise de Gographie X, 1898, pp363-76.

Junod, The Life of a South African Tribe (London, 1927), II, p.456.