Colonialism and Africa's Technology

Gloria T.Emeagwali




Colonialism is a system of administration; a process of exploitation; and a production system often geared towards the creation of capitalist relations and the economic and socio-cultural aggrandizement of the colonizer. This may be done by covert or overt, psychological, legal and military mechanisms. For an admission of the negative effects of British colonialism see a candid though rare admission by Jack Straw, British Foreign Secretary. See also a review of Braudel- one of the eurocentric apologists of colonialism.

Colonialism inhibited the development of indigenous technology in Africa to a large extent. Colonial domination brought with it a shift into a cash crop economy and de-stabilized some of the existing processes of technical growth.

The dumping of goods took place. African markets were flooded with cheap mass-produced textile, glass and iron products in the context of policies such as "the scrap iron policy" of Britain. Indigenous manufacturing capability was deliberately undermined to facilitate European exports. Captive markets were created. There were deliberate laws aimed at suppressing African indigenous technological development.

Among the first groups to feel the impact of the invaders' new laws and activities were the metallurgists. These included the blacksmiths who forged iron and the whitesmiths who worked with lighter metal such as tin. Blacksmiths were depended on as much by farmers, for implements, as by the aristocracy and the political elite. This system of internal self-reliance changed. It is interesting to note that practitioners of indigenous medicine were confronted with unjust laws leading to:

  • Fines
  • Deportation from their native land
  • Imprisonment
  • Execution

Sadly enough, African medical practitioners who were trained in the conventional Western bio-medical tradition were discriminated against and often denied employment. They were excluded from membership from the white-dominated "West African Medical Staff" made up of British migrants. In the words of the Legislative Council Proceedings of November 2, 1911:

" It is only of recent that those in the Medical Services have been able to fight out the right to be recognized and classed as something above chief clerk."

But these discriminatory laws were not confined to medicine. In 1909 the Nigerian builder of a model steam ship was threatened with imprisonment by the British colonial authorities.

This is an extract from "Colonialism and Science: The African Case," a paper presented by Dr. Gloria Emeagwali at the Conference on Matrices of Scientific Knowledge, Oxford University, UK, March 7, 1998.

Send comments to Dr Gloria Emeagwali

Professor of History and African Studies, CCSU

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