Swans Commentary » swans.com March 26, 2012  



Imperial Eugenics In Kenya
Part II of II


by Michael Barker



[Read the first part of this essay.]


(Swans - March 26, 2012)   Eugenic concerns for Kenya were not, however, limited to undertaking dubious research on African intelligence. In fact, colonial educational policy toward Africa from the late 1920s onwards illustrates the "continuity" that existed between the ideas of the Kenyan eugenicists and the metropolitan movement for research into African development and education. This can be seen by a focus on the promotion of intelligence testing among natives, which by 1930 was being broadly recommended as a key part of systematizing education in the British colonies: (1) intelligence testing itself being a vital eugenic tool that the ruling class have, and continue to use, to rationalize the injustices inherent to capitalism. (2) Therefore, given these eugenic implications, it is appropriate that one of the leading promoters of both eugenics and IQ testing in the United States, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, then became increasingly involved in such enabling such educational priorities to be implemented in Kenya.

In addition to their interests in eugenics and IQ testing, the Carnegie Corporation had already gained much experience in the field of education, having helped create a tailor-made educational apparatus for African Americans in southern US states: tailor-made, that is, to ensure that humans with black skin remained relatively uneducated compared to their white-skinned counterparts. As Kenneth James King observed in his important book Pan-Africanism and Education: A Study of Race Philanthropy and Education in the Southern States of America and East Africa (Clarendon Press, 1971), following from their activities in America, throughout the 1920s the Carnegie Corporation had become increasingly involved in educational matters in Africa. Moreover, the aforementioned influential member of the international missionary community, J.H. Oldham, believed that the black educational institutes pioneered in the U.S. (both Hampton and Tuskegee), "provided a formula for combating the usual results of native education, 'the swelled head' and the openness to agitation, and if their principles could be firmly established in the new education of Africa, and the Jeanes School in particular, there was a chance that Africa could bypass the stage of Indian discontent.'" (3) (The first Jeanes School in Kenya was established in 1926 with the support of a grant from the Carnegie Corporation in Kabete.) (4)

Oldham's interest in educational solutions to colonialism makes particular sense as "Missionaries were the only European group engaged in public life in Kenya who appear not to have been won over by the eugenic, biological explanation for 'native backwardness'." (5) But although Oldham ultimately aimed to educate Kenyans in such a way that was compatible with continued imperial exploitation, hoping that intelligence testing "might help in the detection of racial differences in mentality," he was still "horrified by the extremity of Gordon's statements on race and intelligence." Like other foresighted members of the ruling class, Oldham was evidently more interested in supporting less overtly racist approaches to managing Africans. Therefore, in 1930, in order "to create appropriate educational material," Oldham and the president of the Carnegie Corporation, Frederick Keppel (1923-41) "agreed it was necessary to study African mentality; [and so] in 1932 the Carnegie Corporation sent Richard Oliver to perform intelligence tests at African schools in Kenya..." (6) Again, Oliver's educational focus "did not sit easily with the rhetoric" of the eugenicists campaign, but as Campbell points out, there is no doubt that beneath his "more tempered language... there was the same assumption of biological difference in intelligence." (7)

Openly eugenic arguments may not have been popular for all educational reformers, but one can see their attraction to many colonial authorities when one considers that educational inequality "was being increasingly disputed by the African population in Kenya" in the 1930s. And as Campbell points out, the activities of the Kenya Society for the Study of Race Improvement "can be seen as confronting this by making African educability central to the colonial eugenic problematic." Thus it is hardly surprising that eugenic arguments concerning the "educable capacity of the 'East African native' coincided with the emergence of the Kikuyu Independent Schools Movement." (8)

The Independent Schools Movement really took off in the early 1930s. The Kikuyu Independent Schools Association (KISA) was formed, which established its own schools that eventually accepted government inspection in return for grants in aid, and the movement was also closely associated with the formation of independent churches. KISA was less overtly political than another independent schools organisation, the Kikuyu Karinga Education Authority (KKEA), which was confined to southern Kiambu. ... It is striking that the Kenyan eugenicists started developing their theories on African educable capacity at a time when education was an important element of the Kikuyu political agenda and became associated with a political movement that profoundly threatened the colonial status quo. The independent schools movement connected access to education with access to social, political and economic objectives, indicated in particular by the KKEA's clear anti-colonial stance. (p.134)

One should note that at this time one of the founders of KISA, Parmenas Mockerie, had "attempted with [Jomo] Kenyatta to give evidence as a delegate of the KCA before the Parliamentary Committee on East Africa in Britain in May 1931," and had then gone on to study at Ruskin College, Oxford; while Kenyatta's own studies at the London School of Economics were eventually published in 1938 as the book Facing Mount Kenya. "This context of the well-known educational aspirations and achievements associated with Kikuyu political leaders who aroused so much hostility and fear among European settlers must be borne in mind when considering the assertions of Kenyan eugenicists about the educable capacity of East Africans." Gordon's work thus "legitimised and rationalised the settler suspicion of African education," and as Campbell observes, the coincidence of the Kikuyu's political demands and "the elaboration and success of the eugenic theories about African intelligence from about 1930 to 1937 is striking." (9)

In addition to rising concern about Kikuyu political activity during the 1930s, which resulted in a massive increase in their incarceration rates, educational issues tended to be connected "with youths who rejected the traditional, rural status quo." (10) The effects of rapid urbanisation were likewise considered to have contributed towards "a rise in the number of juvenile convictions" -- as in the minds of the settlers, the juveniles of Nairobi "seemed to represent a generation of detribalised and thus unmanageable natives." These racial concerns closely mirror similar ruling class worries with the growth of working class communities (and power) in Britain. Urbanization allegedly disturbed the African mind, and so "Kenyan and British eugenics converged in their imagery of a dispossessed, criminal and unproductive urban under class..." With the political stakes rising it should come as no surprise that the majority of the inmates of the Kabete Reformatory (which was just outside of Nairobi) were Kikuyu, and it was just here, in 1930, where Gordon undertook his first controversial intelligence studies. (11)

In 1932, the Kenyan government formed a Crime Committee to make recommendations for how to deal with what they deemed the juvenile problem. "The Chair of the committee was Armigel Wade (at that time Chief Native Commissioner) and among its members was Mary Shaw, who worked in the Child Welfare Department in Nairobi, was on the board of visitors of Kabete Reformatory and was also Secretary of the KSSRI." Shaw's husband also happened to be the Medical Officer in charge of Child Welfare; and other members of the committee also found much in common with Gordon's eugenic ideals. But while "law and order" policies were intimately entwined with eugenic policies, this is not to say that the committee's recommendation's necessarily had a eugenicist agenda. (12) That said, it is hard to tell the exact influence of eugenic concerns, and:

The negotiation of the roles of race and heredity in the post-war medical and psychiatric discourse of Kenya indicates some important continuities and discontinuities with pre-war science. Of particular interest to this study is the jettisoning of eugenic language, while retaining many of the assumptions and some of the biological interpretations. Between 1944 and 1946, several articles were published in the [East African Medical Journal] that returned to the issue of race and heredity. The first, written by Vint, addressed the question: 'Why has the African not developed a civilization of his own?' Vint used difference in skin colour as the starting point for elaborating more complex reasons for racial differences. (p.180)

Most interestingly, in 1946 O'Brien had published an article in the East African Medical Journal to attack scientific racism and "assist and defend the recently formed Race Relations Committee in Kenya and promote the establishment of a Race Relations Institute." (13) The "skeptical response" by the East African Medical Journal's editor was telling. As Campbell observed:

Of O'Brien's dismissal of the "biological conception of race" in favour of an environmental analysis of difference, an editorial commented: "This doctrine may well be regarded by many as so revolutionary as to require a good deal more proof before it is accepted." The editorial then went on to refer to the researches by Gordon and Vint on the African brain, concluding from them that "May it not be that the African while having a good brain has a different brain? Is it best to encourage educational and social progress along European lines or would it be better to evolve a different line of progress suited to a people with great though different intellectual possibilities?" (p.182)

Evidently not much had changed within the Kenyan medical profession, although admittedly they were beginning to make some concessions in line with the adoption of reform eugenics in the metropole. The editorial continued: "The solution was to locate the causes of African difference, whether in cultural development (a new concept that insinuated African intelligence), psychological stability, or physique, in the environment." "This response," Campbell continues, "enabled the doctors (in their own terms) to avoid accusations of racism, while leaving them free to pursue and emphasise the same interest in race." (14)

In this regard, the work of the "notorious" colonial psychiatrist who "had no training in psychiatry," J.C. Carothers, provides a "good example of the post-war attitudes to race and science" in Kenya. J.C. Carothers had retired from his medical work in Kenya (carried out in the 1930s and '40s) and returned to England, where influenced by the earlier work of Gordon and Vint he continued to write about Africa psychiatry. (15) Campbell writes:

The form of Carothers' scientific racism, for the purpose of analysing the role of eugenic thought in Kenyan science, was significantly different from that of the 1930s. The African mind was still treated as pathological, indeed often as psychopathological, by Carothers, but there was far heavier emphasis on the environmental effects, in the shape of social structure and physical environment, as an explanation of African psychology. The issue of nature and nurture was still addressed by Carothers, and he did not discount the role of heredity in racial differences. For example, in 1951 he published an article (again in the Journal of Mental Science) comparing the thinking of leucotomised Europeans with normal Africans. Interestingly, this article arose from an appeal by Vint for tests to find reliable Africans to work in the Medical Research Laboratory. (p.184)

In 1954, shortly after carrying out a major report for the World Health Organization, Carothers "was appointed to write a report on Mau Mau from a psychological perspective." With the Mau Mau war unfolding, this was a time of rising political tensions in Kenya; and it should come as little surprise that Carothers ignored the political context of the Mau Mau uprising, and chose to psychopathologise the African mind. To Carothers the actions of the Mau Mau were presented as owing to their "psychological inability to deal with modern life." Thus Carothers' "important and influential" work on the Mau Mau can be seen as a defense of the colonial power, (16) a defense that contributed in no small way to the brutal repression of the Mau Mau throughout the 1950s.

In fact, in many ways it is ironic that overt support for eugenic concerns were dropped as a result of the bad press Adolf Hitler had given them; as the racism undergirding such ideas never went away, and actually led to the creation of the British government's very own death camps in Kenya. A tragic history which is recounted in brutal detail in Caroline Elkins's book Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (Pimlico, 2005) where she chillingly acknowledges how the slaughter waged by the settlers against the Kikuyu people was accompanied by an important "shift in language and belief, from simple white supremacy to one that was overtly eliminationist." (17) It seems all too clear that, for the ruling class, the wrong lessons were learned from Hitler's Third Reich.


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1.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.97, p.99.  (back)

2.  Long-standing eugenicist, Lewis Terman was the American inventor of the Stanford-Binet IQ test. As Clarence Karier writes: "Terman's tests were based on an occupational hierarchy which was, in fact, the social class system of the corporate liberal state which was then emerging. The many varied tests, all the way from IQ to personality and scholastic achievement, periodically brought up-to-date, would serve a vital part in rationalizing the social class system. The tests also created the illusion of objectivity which, on the one side, served the needs of the 'professional' educators to be 'scientific,' and on the other side, served the need of the system for a myth which could convince the lower classes that their station in life was part of the natural order of things. For many, the myth had apparently worked. In 1963, the Russell Sage Foundation issued a report entitled Experiences and Attitudes of American Adults Concerning Standardized Intelligence Tests. Some of the major findings of that report indicated that the effects of the tests on social classes were 'strong and consistent' and that, while 'the upper class respondent is more likely to favor the use of tests than the lower class respondent,' the 'lower class respondent is more likely to see intelligence tests measuring inborn intelligence.'" Clarence Karier, "Testing for Order and Control in the Corporate Liberal State," in Ned Block and Gerald Dworkin, The IQ Controversy: Critical Readings (Quartet Books, 1977), p.354.  (back)

3.  King, Pan-Africanism and Education, p.156. Additionally, for further details on the miseducation of African Americans, see James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (University of North Carolina Press , 1988); and Michael Barker, "White Philanthropy for Black (Mis)education," Ceasefire Magazine, February 21, 2012.  (back)

4.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.149.  (back)

5.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.179. "The incompatibility of missions and eugenics in Kenya has various underlying causes, all of which contribute to our understanding of the role of eugenics in Kenya. For a start, eugenics was never accepted by the Roman Catholic Church; in December 1930 Pope Pius XI condemned eugenics in his encyclical Casti Connubii, in which he declared that the spirit was paramount over the body and the equality of human souls regardless of material defect. Other missionaries, although not doctrinally opposed to eugenics in the same way, were likely to be suspicious of eugenics because of a longstanding conflict between traditional Christianity and the modern, atheist, Darwinian ideological roots of eugenics. The division between these traditions was compounded in Kenya by the question of native interests; the education and development being encouraged by missionaries was of precisely the kind that the Kenyan eugenicists were warning might be unsuitable and even dangerous when applied to Africans." (p.119)  (back)

6.  Campbell, Race and Empire, pp.99-100, p.99, p.149. Oliver had been a student of the famed psychologist Professor Godfrey Thomson (at Edinburgh University), and then with the aid of a Commonwealth Fellowship, Richard Oliver had studied at Stanford University, California, with Professor Lewis Terman -- one of the founding fathers of eugenic IQ testing. "In his early publications, like his 1916 book, The Measurement of Intelligence, Terman emphasised the innate and immutable nature of intelligence and wrote of the need to curtail the fertility of high-grade defectives, located by intelligence testing. However, in his later work, as [Stephen Jay] Gould points out, Terman became more cautious in his attribution of intelligence purely to heredity and placed more stress on environmental factors." (p.148) Gould dates Terman's change in emphasis to 1937. One should note that between 1923 and 1935 Terman had served on the advisory council of the American Eugenics Society (a council that was disbanded in 1935), and he had acted as a leading member of the Human Betterment Foundation (which had been formed in 1928).  (back)

7.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.153.  (back)

8.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.132. In 1935, the average annual expenditure per African in Kenya was less than 80 pence per person; while for European students living in Kenya it was approximately 32 times greater per person. (p.132)  (back)

9.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.135, p.136.  (back)

10.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.135. "[I]n the 1930s there was a substantial increase in the total number of convictions in Kenya's subordinate courts (29,783 in 1929, rising to a peak of 50,465 in 1934)." (p.168)  (back)

11.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.157, p.27, p.158.  (back)

12.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.161. It is unfortunate to note that: "The proponents of the Kenyan research into mental capacity saw their eugenic approach as highly congruent with this application of science to public welfare and understanding." (p.33) "Gordon's theories about biological racial inferiority were not considered by him to be incompatible with progressive ideas on social policy." (p.172) One can only wonder what might have happened if the Kenyan eugenicists had been given enough resources to carry out their objectives, as the main problem they faced was "that the limited administrative and welfare infrastructure of the colonial state did not allow the implementation of the ambitious policies [they] envisaged for 'scientific colonization'." (p.174)  (back)

13.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.181.  (back)

14.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.182.  (back)

15.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.183.  (back)

16.  Campbell, Race and Empire, p.182, p.184.  (back)

17.  Caroline Elkins, Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (Pimlico, 2005), p.48. "In the Rift Valley, for example, one settler who operated his own screening camp was known as Dr. Bunny by the locals. It was his experimental prowess when it came to interrogating Mau Mau suspects that earned the doctor his notorious nickname: the Joseph Mengele of Kenya. One settler remembers her brother, a member of the Kenya Regiment and a pseudogangster, boasting of Dr. Bunny's exploits, which included burning the skin off live Mau Mau suspects and forcing them to eat their own testicles. Another former settler and member of the local Moral Rearmament Movement also recalled Dr. Bunny's handiwork. He, too, remembered skin searing along with castration and other methods of screening he would 'prefer not to speak of.'" (p.67)

"There is little in the colonial record documenting what happened at the famous Mau Mau Investigation Center, the brainchild of the Special Branch. If there were records, they have been destroyed or are still to be declassified. 'This [Mau Mau Investigation Center] is where we liked to send the worst gang members when we captured them sent to the forests,' recalled one settler who had joined the ranks of the Kenya Regiment sent to the Aberdares. 'We knew the slow method of torture [at the Mau Mau Investigation Center] was worse than anything we could do. Special Branch there had a way of slowly electrocuting a Kuke -- they'd rough up one for days. Once I went personally to drop off one gang member who needed special treatment. I stayed for a few hours to help the boys out, softening him up. Things got a little out of hand. By the time I cut his balls off he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him.'" (p.87)  (back)


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Published March 26, 2012