Volume 8, Issue 2
Lords of the Fly: Sleeping
Sickness Control in British East
Africa, 1900-1960. Kirk
As Hoppe notes, the statistics of sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) epidemics in colonial East Africa draw historians’ attention: in Uganda, perhaps 250,000 people died during the epidemic at the turn of the century; and in Tanganyika and Uganda, hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly resettled from “infested” zones, depopulating huge swathes of land in forcible resettlement that remade the landscape. Beginning with this drama, Hoppe’s book explores British sleeping-sickness control in Uganda and Tanganyika. He announces his book as an environmental history of the land transformed by depopulation and vector management, a study of the powerful social engineering function of British medical experts in “marginal” areas, and asserts a specific causal directionality, arguing that “the emerging cultural and political authority of natural and medical sciences informed the logic, organization and meaning of colonial sleeping sickness control.”(3)
He explores these arguments over the changing terrain of Uganda and British Tanganyika by drawing on sources central to the experts’ campaigns, such as official reports, gazettes and correspondence involving scientists and administrators, newspaper reports from the Times, and use of the voluminous travel literature produced by would-be expert observers of colonial development, complemented by references to the environmental histories that have proliferated in the years since Walter Rodney and Helge Kjekshus provided early sketches of a devastated East Africa. Clearly responding to an obvious criticism, he has also sought to bring in the insights of the re-settled and others who experienced the upheaval he describes, with interviews that were still apparently so politically problematic in the 1990s that they are sketchy and difficult to integrate into his argument or analyze systematically. As a history of expertise, this work is centered on the sources generated through that expertise, and the questions those experts raised.
suffers, though, from shortcomings with regard to this evidence. The heavy
reliance on published work makes it more difficult to understand how the scientific
experts from the metropole fit into local
administrative contexts, or their interactions
with district commissioners, local government authorities such as
government chiefs, and (especially by the 1920s in Uganda) local politics.
Surely the argument that scientific experts shaped the colonial practices of Uganda and Tanganyika requires
evidence not simply of what the scientists attempted to do, or argued that they
were doing, but of how their actions shaped local debates, power struggles, and crises. That would require, at the least, broader
reading in the administrative files of each colony. One of the book’s
peculiarities is that it fails to draw on the consolidated materials available
in the Public Records Office in Kew, instead
using the problematic and incomplete resources at
More oddly, Hoppe’s discussion of the international scientific understanding of trypanosomiasis seems limited. Much material comes from the secondary literature—this is a crowded field. But given the claims the study makes about experts and their power, it should look more closely at the articles experts wrote, the scientists they trained, and the prestige they generated. In addition to close readings of the science and sociology of scientific papers and conference reports, it might also be useful to compare responses to trypanosomiasis to responses to other major diseases, such as malaria among humans and east coast fever among cattle.
Hoppe is most successful in pushing readers toward some important central questions: how not only the disease, but the interventions of experts, shape colonial experiences for the administrations of Uganda and Tanganyika, the lands they administered, and the people of the affected areas. This is an important and interesting question in the context of debates over scientific power and decision-making in contemporary Africa in the context of not just HIV/AIDS, but malaria, Ebola, etc. Hoppe fundamentally undermines any claim that the continent offers too much inertia to state-sponsored or science-based interventions. Colonial governments in a variety of periods were able, after all, to achieve dramatic re-shapings of the landscape. As science knows more, presumably we should be able to do more, though Hoppe’s epilogue describes current difficulties with and responses to the disease without concluding whether they are likely to work or not.
This study potentially appeals to readers in various fields, but all are likely to be left wanting more: environmental historians may follow his discussion of park origins and brush clearance, but want a more complex assessment of how space and power intersected in changing ways during the 60 years chronicled here. Historians of science will value the analysis of how cosmopolitan science shaped local brush clearance and removals, but may find frustrating Hoppe’s limited critical discussion of the actual science. Historians interested in health should focus on his claims of imperial intentions and follow the limited discussion of the removal camps, but may miss discussion of the experience of illness and the management of sick and dying trypanosomiasis patients. And those predominantly interested in questions of state power and governmentality are likely to find provocative Hoppe’s suggestion that scientific management was used to control marginal areas, but query whether the area around the governor’s house at Entebbe qualified as marginal.
Hoppe’s book is full of strong questions that are formulated to tackle a wide span of regions, periods, and discourses, and serves as a beginning for a range of new studies.