Swans Commentary » swans.com March 12, 2012  



Imperial Eugenics In Kenya
Part I of II


by Michael Barker



(Swans - March 12, 2012)   In recent decades there have been a plethora of studies that have demonstrated the global application of eugenic ideas, (1) but close investigations of imperial eugenic movements have tended to be left by the wayside. Chloe Campbell's book Race and Empire: Eugenics in Colonial Kenya (Manchester University Press, 2007) helps fill this lacuna, providing a concrete example of how "eugenics served as a scientific bulwark that fortified the ideology of imperialism." Formed in July 1933, the Kenya Society for the Study of Race Improvement (KSSRI) was the centerpiece of the colonial eugenic movement. Far from being a marginal affair," the majority" of the society's members "worked in colonial administration or were professionals based in Nairobi, or were the wives of men employed in these areas." Dreams of applying eugenic solutions to the political problems facing colonialism were not, however, limited to the "most vociferously racially hostile members of Kenyan settler society"; and in fact, such policies were "supported by individuals who were considered progressive, and by some officials who were viewed as suspiciously 'pro-native' by local settlers." Support for eugenics by such progressives owed much to the "ultimately disingenuous" idea that the science of eugenics could "take the poison out of the debate on race"; (2) i.e., provide the means by which white "progressive" imperialists could promote "native development" and dominate Kenya without a reliance upon increasingly delegitimized racial ideological frameworks.

Two significant individuals who worked together to promote the cause of eugenics in Kenya and whose research carried much weight in Africa were Dr. Henry Laing Gordon and Dr. F. W. Vint. Gordon was an ardent propagandist for the immediate implementation of eugenically-based program of "scientific colonization." Vint, on the other hand, tended to be "more reticent about making social and political extrapolations, maintaining a position of scientific detachment." (3) Despite his outspoken approach to eugenics, Gordon was very much an accepted member of the colonial ruling class. To illustrate this point, in 1931, shortly after Gordon published an article in which "he argued that there was a high level of inherited, innate mental deficiency, or amentia, in Kenya, which caused inferior intelligence in the 'East African native'" he became president of the Kenyan branch of the British Medical Association. (4) Yet despite the high esteem his work received in colonial circles, the depression meant that substantial funding for his eugenic studies was not available in Kenya, thus:

At the end of 1933 Gordon was given special leave by the Kenya medical department to allow him to go to London and test his ideas on the more specialised scientific opinion there. An indication of Gordon's standing is given by that fact that he was granted three months' paid leave to make this trip to London and his passage to Britain was also paid for by the Kenya government. Paterson (Director of Medical services) argued that it was highly desirable that Gordon's research be communicated to a British audience, as the publicity would be valuable to Kenya and might lead to a serious research project. (p.56)

During this visit Gordon gave a paper to the African Circle at Chatham House (which was later published in their Journal of African Society), that made the case that African brains did not have the same cellular durability as European ones. Hence, this led him to the amazing conclusion (based on one dissection), that the demands placed on African minds by European education and religion led to a type of mental collapse (dementia praecox) that was not apparent in "raw natives." This outright dismissal of the potential of the African mind for civilization meant that the Kenyan eugenicists, contrary to their counterparts in the metropole, veered clear of the traditional "solutions" provided by negative or positive eugenics, because the "supposed incapacity" in this case was located in the entire African population rendering such policies impractical. (5)

Desperate to obtain support to launch a large research program in Kenya to research African mental backwardness, Gordon made the most of his limited time in London and also presented his work on amentia at a meeting of the Eugenics Society in London. Here, despite the fact that his research relied upon "crude correlations of head size and intelligence" -- an approach that used methods "that had largely been discredited by biologists in Britain" -- he still "received a warm response" from his fellow eugenicists. (6) But given the "fundamental flaws" in his research, not everyone left the legitimacy of Gordon's work unchallenged.

One prominent critic was Hilda Matheson, the secretary of the African Research Survey in Oxford. Campbell cites a personal letter that Matheson wrote to J.H. Oldham, secretary of the Conference of British Missionary Societies and the International Missionary Council, whereupon Matheson wrote that she had "spoken to Julian Huxley, who was of course fully aware of the [negative] implications" of Gordon's data, which if true (which Matheson thought unlikely) "could be used by interested people to make all kinds of unwarrantable deductions..." Other critics were likewise concerned about Gordon's "dubiously immaculate results," and Campbell argues that given the time and resource-consuming nature of Gordon's research, such critics certainly had good reasons for feeling that Gordon "was not in a position to conduct reliably a research project of the scale he described." (7)

Despite such significant reservations about the legitimacy of Gordon's work, the paper he presented to the British Eugenics Society was published the following year in Eugenics Review. In public too, the Eugenics Society was quick to rally to his cause, and in November 1933, leading members of the Eugenics Society proceeded to demand that greater resources be made available to follow up on Gordon and Vint's useful research on race and intelligence in Kenya. They did this by writing letters to The Times, the Colonial Office, and the Economic Advisory Council; and although Julian Huxley and Frank Crew ("who were both among the foremost British experts on genetics and critics of the mainline eugenic tradition") did not sign the "more temperate" letter to The Times, they did sign the two other letters. (8) In contrast to the letter sent to The Times, the two letters signed by Huxley "explicitly mentioned African inferiority." However, Huxley, no doubt with his reformist self-image in mind, was concerned with the initial draft of the letters and would only sign them if a qualification was added that there was some uncertainty about the exact causes of this inferiority -- a qualification that was duly added. (9) Following the publication of the Eugenics Society's letter in The Times, Gordon then had a letter published...

... in which he stated his and Vint's findings in a much more explicit manner than had been adopted in the Eugenics Society's letter of November 25. Gordon included a graph comparing the brain capacity in cubic centimetres of Europeans with "natives", which showed growth in African brain capacity gradually ceasing at adolescence. This was in contrast to the European brain, which was shown to rise steeply from about the age of sixteen. The peak of African brain capacity indicated in the graph was about that given for Europeans aged ten... In this letter, the extremity of Gordon's position on race and intelligence was made clear. (p.87)

Huxley's support for Gordon and Vint's research is particularly interesting given that earlier in the same year, in July 1933, Huxley had written the preface for Parmenas Mockerie's book An African Speaks for His People (Hogarth Press, 1934). Mockerie was "considered dangerously subversive in Kenya" as he was not only the founder of the Kikuyu Independent Schools Association, but also a delegate of the Kikuyu Central Association. (10)

In his foreword, Huxley argued that Mockerie himself was proof of the innate capacity of Africans and drew attention to the injustices felt under "the best-intentioned acts of paternalistic government," mentioning the kipande system (the certification system enforced under the Registration of Natives Ordinance, which required all adult African men to carry a registration pass at all times while outside the reserves), the restrictions on public meetings and political activity, and low wages. Huxley also mentioned in the foreword the belief in African mental inferiority and stated that it was impossible to say whether such a position was correct or not. He went on to say that the African was clearly far more capable of benefiting from education than believers in white superiority had held. (pp.84-5)

Huxley wanted to have his cake and eat it too, and as late as 1938 Huxley was "still supporting" Gordon, "long after many regarded him to be discredited in Britain..." Moreover, even though the British Eugenics Society's campaign to attain major funding for Gordon and Vint's eugenic research failed, Gordon "was elected to the Consultative Council of the Eugenics Society in 1939 and throughout World War Two he kept 'in close touch with the Society's head quarters'." Likewise, it is significant to note that the year after John Gilks, the former Director of Medical Services and Sanitary Services in Kenya, had retired from this position in 1933, he went on to become a member of the council of the British Eugenics Society. Having resettled in Britain, Gilk then "became an important part of Gordon's campaign" to attain support from British eugenicists. (11)

But in the end, despite the best efforts of British and Kenyan eugenicists, the campaign for renewed British support for eugenic research in Kenya proved unsuccessful, as even the "somewhat qualified support for the Kenyan eugenicists within the Colonial Office evaporated" as a result of the debate that raged in the British press in the winter of 1933/34. For instance, in 1934, Kenyan eugenicists attempted to push the Economic Advisory Council to fund research that examined the "influence of brain growth and other factors upon mental development among the indigenous races of East Africa" so that future research could be directly more effectively. However, although the terms of reference for this research were presented in a "fairly restrained tone," the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, "had misgivings about the government being connected with the proposed research." MacDonald thus reluctantly agreed that this issue should be investigated by the British government's African Research Survey, against his preference that the work be undertaken by a "completely independent body," which in this case meant the Rockefeller Foundation. (12)

[Continue to the second part of this essay.]


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1.  Mark Adams (ed.), The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia (Oxford University Press, 1990); Nancy Leys Stepan, "The Hour of Eugenics": Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Cornell University Press, 1991); Richard Cleminson, "Eugenics by Name or Nature? The Spanish Anarchist Sex Reform of the 1930s," History of European Ideas, 1815 (1994), pp. 729-40.  (back)

2.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.3, p.6. Campbell adopts the misleading idea that leading eugenicists in the UK (associated with the British Eugenics Society), like their counterparts in the United States, became more interested in "reform" eugenics -- that is, eugenics minus racism -- during the 1930s. She highlights the significant reformist influence that Julian Huxley exerted over the British Eugenics Society in the 1930s and beyond, but points out that as "a liberal, in the 1920s Huxley espoused some extremely racist ideas that were in sharp contrast to his later well-known antiracist stance." (p.22) After his 1929 trip to East Africa, where he served as an advisor for the Colonial Office's Advisory Committee on Native Education in Tropical Africa, Huxley "wrote the book Africa View in which he began to question the biological validity of race." Later, writing with Alfred Haddon he coauthored the book We Europeans: A Survey of "Racial" Problems (1935), which "was a deliberate attempt to reveal the misconceptions of racism and the fallacy of Nazi racial theories." Campbell adds: "It was largely an attack on German racism and concentrated on racial questions within Europe. It argued that the notion of a genetically pure race was impossible and emphasised the importance of both nature and nurture in shaping human behaviour and characteristics; its argument was that the concept of race made little biological sense." (p.23)

"In 1980 [Elspeth] Huxley published a memoir of her mother which included her letters; significantly, she excised all the comments on eugenics and the KSSRI that Grant had frequently made in the original letters." (p.116) Elspeth Huxley (ed.), Nellie: Letters from Africa (1980).  (back)

3.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.40, p.41. "The fact that practically all of Vint's work was concerned with race, and yet he avoided, except in his articles on the brain, the kind of dramatic generalisations that Dr Gordon was prone to, made him a more powerful ally in propagandising the supposed empirical reality of African mental inferiority. Thus, Vint's work was, for example, taken more seriously by the Colonial Office in London. As Flood said of Vint, 'He deals in observed facts'. In fact, Vint was not disinterested when it came to the question of African intelligence. This can be seen in his correlation of brain size and weight with intelligence." (p.52)

For a short time in the late 1930s Gordon served as Kenya's only mental health care expert at the Mathari Mental Hospital in Kenya. Although Campbell doesn't explore the politics of the incarceration of Africans in mental institutions, she directs her readers to Gail Beuschel's "valuable" study "Shutting Africans Away: Lunacy, Race and Social Order in Colonial Kenya, 1910-1963," Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of London, 2002.  (back)

4.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.44.  (back)

5.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.60, p.28.  (back)

6.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.83, p.58. Critically, in private correspondence with influential reform eugenicist, Carlos Blacker -- who served as the General Secretary of the Eugenics Society from 1931 to 1952 -- Gordon made it clear "he was pursuing the question of amentia in Kenya from an objective point of view; [and] he was careful to distance himself from the settler perspective, which had become notorious in Britain in relation to native interests." "Both Blacker and Gordon were psychiatrists and it is clear that Blacker felt that on a personal and professional level, Gordon was an appropriate person for the Eugenics Society to support; [in November 1933] Blacker described Gordon to Julian Huxley as a 'charming man personally, and, in my opinion, entirely safe to back'." (p.82)  (back)

7.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.58, p.59.  (back)

8.  Campbell, Race and Empire, pp.77-8. Scientists who joined the debate against Gordon subsequently included leading authorities include Louis Leakey, Cyril Burt, and J.B.S. Haldane.  (back)

9.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.78. Thus with regards to this change demanded by Huxley, the part of the letter he signed that is cited by Campbell read: "The results arrived at so far tend to show the existence of a definite degree of inferiority in the average of at least certain native tribes as compared with the average European. It is, however, quite uncertain how much of the difference is truly genetic, and how much due to environmental conditions, notably nutrition and disease. It is obvious that the issues raised are of enormous importance, and will fundamentally concern the policy which will be laid down for the development of the East African territories, and for promoting the social advancement of the native." (p.78)  (back)

10.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.84.  (back)

11.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.85, p.86, p.61.  (back)

12.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.103, p.105. Campbell adds: "The Prime Minister was particularly anxious that government involvement might have political ramifications in South Africa." (p.105)  (back)


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Published March 12, 2012