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Triumph of the Expert

Review by: Gail Hook, University of Texas at Austin

Triumph of the Expert: Agrarian Doctrines of Development and the Legacies of British Colonialism, Joseph Morgan Hodge (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2007), 408 pages.

A very informative and enlightening survey of British colonial development, from the late nineteenth century through decolonization, Triumph of the Expert demonstrates the increasing need of the Colonial Office and administrators on-the- spot in the colonies to draw on the expertise of scientists in the fields of agriculture, botany, forestry, and medicine to develop colonial programs beneficial to both Britain and colonial subjects. Hodge does refer to Lord Lugard’s “dual mandate” thesis (1926) that proposes this dichotomy but also contributes an examination of other contemporary and current arguments. Overall this is an excellent, readable overview of science and colonial development and how these undercurrents actually greatly influenced Colonial Office policy and philosophy.

Hodge, in particular, links the rise of colonial development programs with the period of the “New Imperialism” in the late nineteenth century and with Joseph Chamberlain’s colonial development programs (as secretary of state for the colonies, 1895-1903) that saw the colonies as “estates” ripe for development (or exploitation) of resources in order to support the empire’s growth. Later, as humanitarian and liberal ideals turned economic development into the British duty to protect and preserve colonial subjects, agricultural scientists became important consultants to the Colonial Office, especially in the areas of soils science, mapmaking, and field classification surveys. But the interwar years also brought an awareness of the limitations of tropical fertility (p. 152), bursting earlier assumptions of the potential of colonial land, particularly in Africa, but also throughout the empire. Perhaps most interesting is Hodge’s chronological assessment of the relationships between the Colonial Office, the experts, and men- on-the-spot. As experts like soils chemists and foresters demonstrated the devastating effects on the land of over-, and under-, population, soil degradation, and erosion, they caused local administrators to view the problems “with new eyes” (p. 158). Their identifications of pending crises, especially in Africa, finally caught the attention of experts and policy makers in London (p. 161). Problems of poverty, poor nutrition, overpopulation, and other crises specific to colonial subjects also were finally addressed. After the Second World War, Britain looked to the colonies for “salvation” (p. 208) for its post-war economic crisis, and a “second colonial occupation” involving increased production and exploitation of resources was thrust on colonial peoples. In general, these new programs were ill- planned and did not take into consideration resistance by indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, especially in the interwar years and during the Second World War, when reliance on experts led to a reconstruction of the Colonial Office, information from the local level was passed over and the new programs failed accordingly. A particularly interesting example is the failure of the East Africa Groundnut Scheme, which as proposed in 1947 would have eventually cleared 3,210,000 acres in East Africa, and transformed them into more than 100 farming units of 30,000 acres each, at a cost of more than £24 million. Together these farms would produce 600,000-800,000 tons of groundnuts, all to support Britain’s postwar economic recovery. Despite the scientific experimentation and study by soil scientists in earlier decades, the groundnut project had failed by 1952, largely due to soil and climatic conditions in the chosen area of Kongwa, and to the failure of second- hand tractors, designed for use in North America, in the tropical climate and the Kongwa scrub (pp. 209-211). This and other failed projects renewed the mistrust between the Colonial Office and scientific experts (who had endorsed the projects), and recognized that men-on-the-spot, knowledgeable of local conditions, should be involved in development. Furthermore, Hodge argues, “one of the fundamental reasons for the failure of the postwar colonial development mission was the enigma of the mission itself” (p. 230):

Local officials and technical experts vacillated between reasserting order and stability, on the one hand, and answering the demand for intensifying production and productivity, on the other; between raising colonial living standards and welfare, and responding to the pressures of metropolitan needs; between maintaining soil fertility and conservation, and exploiting colonial resources. (p. 231)

Inherent in this “mission impossible”, Hodge notes, is the enduring assumption that the British held a “white man’s burden” to improve colonial subjects’ lives (p. 213). He concludes the book with a discussion of the return of imperialism in the 21st century and how these ideas continue to permeate global economics.

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