Decolonise science – time to end another imperial era
Leading public scientific institutions in imperial Britain, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the British Museum, as well as ethnographic displays of “exotic” humans, relied on a global network of colonial collectors and go-betweens. By 1857, the East India Company’s London zoological museum boasted insect specimens from across the colonial world, including from Ceylon, India, Java and Nepal. The British and Natural History museums were founded using the personal collection of doctor and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane. To gather these thousands of specimens, Sloane had worked intimately with the East India, South Sea and Royal African companies, which did a great deal to help establish the British Empire. The scientists who used this evidence were rarely sedentary geniuses working in laboratories insulated from imperial politics and economics. The likes of Charles Darwin on the Beagle and botanist Sir Joseph Banks on the Endeavour literally rode on the voyages of British exploration and conquest that enabled imperialism. Other scientific careers were directly driven by imperial achievements and needs. Early anthropological work in British India, such as Sir Herbert Hope Risley’s Tribes and Castes of Bengal, published in 1891, drew upon massive administrative classifications of the colonised population. Map-making operations including the work of the Great Trigonometrical Survey in South Asia came from the need to cross colonial landscapes for trade and military campaigns. The geological surveys commissioned around the world by Sir Roderick Murchison were linked with intelligence gathering on minerals and local politics. Efforts to curb epidemic diseases such as plague, smallpox and cholera led to attempts to discipline the routines, diets and movements of colonial subjects. This opened up a political process that the historian David Arnold has termed the “colonisation of the body”. By controlling people as well as countries, the authorities turned medicine into a weapon with which to secure imperial rule. New technologies were also put to use expanding and consolidating the empire. Photographs were used for creating physical and racial stereotypes of different groups of colonised people. Steamboats were crucial in the colonial exploration of Africa in the mid-19th century. Aircraft enabled the British to surveil and then bomb rebellions in 20th-century Iraq. The innovation of wireless radio in the 1890s was shaped by Britian’s need for discreet, long-distance communication during the South African war.
Rohan Deb Roy in Decolonise science – time to end another imperial era (theconversation)