The Legacy Of Colonial Experimentation & Medicinal Practices In Africa

During colonization, millions of African individuals were subjected to medical examinations, and forced to receive injections with serious side effects. Here is how the legacy of colonial experimentation and medicine has manifested in African culture today.

Towards the end of the 19th century, politicians from several European countries oversaw the conquest of sub-Saharan Africa, dividing the bulk of the continent between the governments of Great Britain, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and France.

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1920s French Map of Africa. Instagram

While their motives varied, they were “optimistic” about the potential wealth of the new territories, in terms of both natural resources and labor pools. These governments embraced the mandate to “civilize,” “improve,” and “develop” the populations they ruled, setting up governance structures that invested officials with far more cultural and political powers than most Africans possessed.

Between the 1920s and 1950s specifically, French colonial governments undertook extensive medical campaigns in central Africa, aiming at managing tropical diseases. In Cameroon and present day Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, and Gabon; the colonial governments organized various campaigns against several diseases, including: malaria, syphilis, and the most extensive of which focusing on sleeping sickness – a lethal disease spread by the tsetse fly.

Over the course of several decades, millions of African individuals were subjected to medical examinations and forced to receive injections of medications with questionable efficacy and serious side effects, including: blindness, gangrene, and in some cases, death.

The sleeping sickness campaigns during this time period constituted some of the largest colonial health investments. With this said, however, European efforts to ameliorate the health of their “subjects” were usually beset with contradictions, both because diseased burdens increased, and because health conditions were more difficult to control than officials expected.

Conquest was violent and disruptive, radically altering people’s lives and landscapes. Hundreds of thousands of people in this region died from sleeping sickness, causing widespread trauma and fear. The Belgian, German, French, and British officials on the ground, were no more equipped to handle the outbreak than anyone else, especially given their uncertainty about its etiology, and the fact that there was no cure at this time.

Colonial efforts to create export-based economies had similar deadly and adverse effects on African health. Whether people were forced into infrastructure, mining, or agricultural projects; they often had few occupational protections and succumbed to illnesses that resulted from their labors.

In the mining regions of Southern African and the Belgian Congo, for example, workers experienced a sharp increase in tuberculosis rates, and in areas of large-scale plantation agriculture, people were vulnerable to water-borne, mosquito-born, and worm diseases, stemming from the altered landscapes and environments.

colonial experimentation
Maternity Hospital, Somalia. Wikipedia

As demand for industrial laborers increased as well, it led to massive migrations of men to expanding urban centers in Southern Africa, indirectly affecting fertility rates.

Medical Research and Experimentation

For much of the colonial era, agreed-upon ethical standards for research did not exist, nor were there clear methods for how to design and analyze both large, and small-scale trials. For many clinicians and researchers, these open-ended conditions in colonial Africa, created an ethos, in both treatment and research campaigns, that the ends justified the means.

If clinicians or researchers had to coerce, manipulate, deceive, or even threaten patients in order to achieve their goals; they sometimes would. Similarly, even if the effects of the drugs used were unknown, or if diagnostic tools and treatments caused pain or permanent damage, they would choose to use them anyway.

These “methods” were guided by the logic that doing something was better than doing nothing. People who were adversely affected during these oftentimes involuntary campaigns, had little recourse for long-term care or assistance, except within their existing communities.

Mistrust in Medicine

Based on a variety of research conducted nowadays, many anthropologists hypothesis now that colonial medical campaigns may have had a series of effects on African mistrust in medicine, leading to the under-utilization of healthcare.

Relatedly, research in other countries has highlighted that even when there is access to high-quality and quantity preventative and therapeutic tools, demands still remain puzzlingly low.

It is thought that the colonial medical campaigns have had effects on both the beliefs about modern medicine and the success of modern health interventions. Said campaigns may have affected trust in medicine for a number of reasons: local peoples were forced to receive injections, and medications were often times ineffective, with serious, life-altering side effects. Campaigns may have also caused the spread of diseases, because of the re-use of unsanitary equipment and needles.

colonial experimentation
Gambo Hospital, Ethiopia. Photo by Lucio Patone on Unsplash

Examining the history of European colonization in Africa highlights the medical factors that have affected health and healing across the continent. Conquest and economic development were justified on the grounds that they would improve conditions for people in Africa, however, they caused considerable harm.

Health systems were typically understaffed and underfunded, making it difficult to fulfill their mandate, while also raising questions about distributive justice. In research and treatment campaigns, people’s consent was rarely considered, leading to strong mistrust in this system.

All of these dynamics have manifested into the present, and need to be taken into account in any effort to help improve international health systems.

Lily Adami

Content Editor Associate

Having a silly and hard-working personality, Lily loves getting to know people and is passionate about human rights around the world. She is enthusiastic about other cultures, history, and international affairs. Lily has a deep appreciation for traveling, her favorite places include: Amsterdam, Amalfi Coast, and South Africa.

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