The Science of Empire

by N. Gabriel Martin

1870 Index of Great Trigonometrical Survey of India

Henry Ward Beecher was one of the most prominent and influential abolitionists in the US prior to and during the Civil War. He campaigned against the “Compromise of 1850” in which the new state of California, annexed in the Mexican-American war, was agreed to be made a state without slavery in exchange for tougher laws against aiding fugitive slaves in the non-slavery states. In his argument against the Compromise of 1850, “Shall we compromise,” Beecher argued, according to his biographer Debby Applegate: “No lasting compromise was possible between Liberty and Slavery, Henry argued, for democracy and aristocracy entailed such entirely different social and economic conditions that ‘One or the other must die.’”[1]

In her Voice From the South, African-American author Anna Julia Cooper writes about hearing Beecher say “Were Africa and the Africans to sink to-morrow, how much poorer would the world be? A little less gold and ivory, a little less coffee, a considerable ripple, perhaps, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans would come together—that is all; not a poem, not an invention, not a piece of art would be missed from the world.”[2]

Opposed to the enslavement of Africans on the one hand, utterly dismissive of their value on the other, for Beecher the problem of slavery would be just as well resolved if Thanos snapped his fingers and disappeared all Africans, as it would if slavery were abolished. Perhaps better. Beecher’s position isn’t atypical of human rights advocates, even today (although the way he puts it would certainly be impolitic today). When charities from Oxfam to Save The Children feature starving African children in their ads, the message isn’t that the impoverishment of those children inhibits their potential as the inheritors of a rich cultural endowment that goes back to the birth of civilisation, mathematics, and monotheism in Ancient Egypt. The message these humanitarian ads send is that the children are suffering and that you have the power to save them. As Didier Fassin writes: “Humanitarian reason pays more attention to the biological life of the destitute and unfortunate, the life in the name of which they are given aid, than to their biographical life, the life through which they could, independently, give a meaning to their own existence.”[3]

If the suffering is the problem with impoverishment and other forms of oppression, then it’s all the same whether the hungry are fed or never existed in the first place. This is what these humanitarian campaigns imply, and it is made more explicit in the growing support for anti-natalism. Anti-natalism is the opposition to procreation. There are extreme forms of anti-natalism that oppose all procreation on the grounds that existence is more suffering than not (see, for example, Sophocles and David Benatar[4]), but there is far more support for ecological anti-natalism—the opposition to procreation (or, at least, to high rates of procreation) in order to avoid or allay ecological disasters, such as climate change.

The disaster of climate change has made anti-natalism increasingly popular, but it’s hardly a new idea. Winston Churchill, for example, blamed birth rates for the 1943 Bengal famine, although his own policies were responsible for rice shortages, reportedly saying: “The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”[5]

The shared assumption of humanitarianism, eco-fascist anti-natalism, colonialist paternalism, and eugenics, is the denial of the value of non-western people and non-western cultures. Whether the proposed solution to oppression is decreasing fertility rates in developing countries; France, Spain, and Portugal’s “civilizing mission”; “killing the Indian to save the man”;  or Beecher’s Africa-nihilating counter-factual, it is because there is no value perceived in the population that saviours are trying to save, only the negative value of an ability to suffer that, in theory at least, can be resolved as well by never having come to exist as by ‘converting’ or ‘developing’ the population.

Beecher’s nihilistic devaluation of African culture is extreme, but we don’t have to look hard to find less blunt, or only slightly less blunt, devaluations, such as the phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas’ statement in an interview that “the Bible and the Greeks present the only serious issues in human life; everything else is dancing.”[6]

Explicit dismissal of the value of non-Western culture, or of the superfluousness of what any other culture has to bring to the world, are common enough in the modern era, but surely we know better now. This kind of Eurocentrism is easy to dismiss today as the reserve of reactionaries like Allan Bloom and crypto-fascists like Ben Shapiro[7], but a more moderate version of the idea that has motivated or at least justified Western imperialism for 500 years—the idea that the ideas spread by imperialism are superior and deserve to dominate—is still pervasive. It’s just the idea that only western culture has made significant contributions to the world.

Nowhere is this idea more entrenched than when it comes to the authority of modern science. The sciences have the status in public debate of arbiters of truth. Few claims can be taken seriously in public discourse (as the basis for policy decisions, for example), unless they have been scientifically established, and what has been scientifically established can only be challenged by still better evidence of a scientific kind. As Max Weber noted: “The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the “‘disenchantment of the world’.”[8]

It is because of its total domination of ways to make a serious point in public discourse that Decolonial theorists have called for a revolt against science’s hegemony, a project referred to as ‘epistemic decolonization’. As Aníbal Quijano writes: “the European paradigm of rational knowledge, was not only elaborated in the context of, but as part of, a power structure that involved the European colonial domination over the rest of the world.”[9] Quijano, along with other authors in the movement, has argued that decolonization, that is, the opposition to the persisting Eurocentered colonial power-structures that are responsible for conditions such as the ongoing economic divide between rich nations and the Global South, have argued that winning independence from this epistemic colonization is a crucial part of any decolonial emancipation.

Prejudices like that Beecham expressed justified colonialism around the world. Regardless of the cultures it libelled, the idea was more or less the same—the cultures of colonised peoples were accused of being backward in two key senses; their customs were evil, and their beliefs were confused, simplistic, or wrong. This provided the justification for a paternalistic colonialism intended to improve colonised peoples by imposing European culture and language on them, while brutally suppressing the expression of their own. As one of “the chief architects” of the Indophobia that paved the way for increased cultural imperialism in India, Charles Grant, wrote about the Indians:

“The true cure of darkness, is the introduction of light. The Hindus err because they are ignorant, and their errors have never fairly been laid before them. The communication of our light and knowledge to them would prove the best remedy for their disorders … and would have great and happy effects upon them, effects honourable and advantageous for us.”[10]

Grant’s paternalism was matched by other colonial administrators, such as Henry Maine, who wrote:

The Indian intellect stood in need, beyond everything else, of strict criteria of truth. It required a treatment to harden and brace it, and scientific teaching was exactly the tonic which its infirmities called for.[11]

The indophobic prejudice that justified colonialist intervention was expressed, in each case, in more or less the same terms. Whereas Beecher dismissed African culture as a lack, the arguments defending colonisation in India described the existing culture as an intellectual toxin that needed to be eliminated. As an administrator of the Asiatic Society put it:

In prosecuting the study and in contemplating the structure of the universe, and in the consequences resulting from them, they can scarcely fail of relieving themselves from a load of prejudices and superstition; they will thus gradually, in proportion as their scientific knowledge is spread, become better men and subjects, and less likely even to be made the tools of any ambitious man or fanatic.[12]

But whether the culture of the colonised was dismissed as a nullity or treated with suspicion as a contaminant, or both at once, as in Grant’s mixture of the metaphors of darkness that needs illuminating and disorder that needs remedying, it doesn’t indicate any important conceptual distinction. What’s really remarkable is how indiscriminately and consistently these and other pejoratives have been able to be applied to any of the people colonised by Europeans in the modern era.

In every place that modern Europeans colonized, starting in at least 1524, when the first Franciscan missionaries arrived in Mexico for what Robert Ricard described as “spiritual conquest”, they imposed their own belief systems and suppressed those of the colonized. As the importance of modern sciences to the colonial enterprises, and to European culture in general, grew, the sciences eclipsed religion. Scientific knowledge, especially in the form of geological and ethnographic surveys, became crucial to the governance of colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries.

For example, Colin Mackenzie’s ethnographic surveys of Mysore, India, in the early 1800s, made the development of the caste system for the exercise of colonial administration possible.[13] Around the same time, William Lambton’s Great Trigonometrical Survey of the Indian Subcontinent, begun in 1802, was crucial in order to understand the resources and trade routes available to be exploited. The rapid development of markets and resources by a centralised and geographically remote colonial administration required the development of novel methods for acquiring knowledge of the territory and the populace just in order to make colonial governments profitable. This knowledge had to be relatively accurate, but more importantly, it had to be comprehensible to administrators who had no direct, first hand experience of the places and people that they were administrating.

But, this ‘epistemic colonisation’ wasn’t limited to the application of Modern science to colonies. It also involved the repression of indigenous knowledge and culture. For example, belief in European epistemic and cultural superiority justified the destruction of Indigenous knowledge in North America through the forced separation of children from their families according to a principle that Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, called “Kill the Indian, save the man.” In Canada, this model of forced re-education was formalized in the residential school system, established in 1876. Residential schools, in which First Nations children were kidnapped from their families and communities to be given a western, English education, mostly by French-Canadian nuns, wasn’t dismantled until 1996. First Nations children would be punished, often physically, for speaking their own languages.

In fact, the system persists in less formal ways through the Foster care system. First Nations children in Canada, unlike in the US, where the practice is prohibited by the Indian Child Welfare Act, are taken into the foster care system at a vastly disproportionate rate. In 2016, First Nations children ages 0-14 made up 7.7% of the population, but a whopping 52.2% of all children in foster care.

Colonised cultures, and especially their religious and scientific beliefs, were disparaged despite colonisers’ reliance on their knowledge for the success of their colonial projects. This is why Quijano describes a kind of double bind of exploitation and repression of colonised peoples’ knowledge:

In the beginning colonialism was a product of a systematic repression, not only of the specific beliefs, ideas, images, symbols or knowledge that were not useful to global colonial domination, while at the same time the colonizers were expropriating from the colonized their knowledge, especially in mining, agriculture, engineering, as well as their products and work.[14]

This exploitation/repression double bind can be seen very clearly in agriculture. European colonizers brought many of the foods that are now their staples and delicacies from colonized countries, including tea, coffee, chocolate, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and most of the legumes available today. The list could go on and on. To take just one example, modern corn was the product of 9000 years of domestic breeding in North America, a process which paleobotanists have not been able to fully explain. All of these foods were the products of domestication, therefore of agricultural technologies, of the colonized societies. At the same time as colonizers plundered their agricultural technologies, they demeaned the cultures that had produced them as a justification for their colonial domination. Here we can see the exploitation of colonised cultures at exactly the same time that they are being repressed.

The uniformity of the dismissal of the cultures of colonized peoples is evidence of the fact that it had nothing at all to do with those cultures themselves, everything to do with the attitudes of the colonizers. Attacking the beliefs of the colonised was crucial to the justification for imperialism, as the indophobic attitudes of Charles Grant and Henry Maine demonstrate. However, this shouldn’t be taken as an indication that the “civilizing mission” was ever the primary reason for imposing European beliefs on the colonised.

A far more likely explanation of the importance of epistemic colonization is available if we pay attention to the ways in which scientific knowledge, in particular, was crucial to the practical success of colonizing projects. By examining the use of scientific surveys for colonial governance and exploitation, it is possible to understand how these Modern scientific methods were crucial for those purposes. It is also possible to see how the extraordinary success of this kind of scientific knowledge was due to the centralised governance and concentration of power that facilitated. The scientific methods of measuring populations and territories did not, in any general sense, make it possible to know the earth and its people ‘better’ or more accurately than the knowledge that it displaced. It was more accurate in some ways, worse in others, but most importantly – it made Empire possible.

In my next post at 3 Quarks Daily, I will examine a particular example of the confrontation between modern scientific methods and the indigenous knowledge that it displaced. Starting in 1869, the Canadian Dominion Land Survey mapped a good part of the 200 million acre territory stretching from the border of Ontario to the Rocky Mountains, and parcelled it out into 640 acre plots ready that settlers could farm and claim. The way that the survey parcelled the land into square plots, for the most part heedless of the geographical features of the land, was incompatible with the needs of the Métis, mixed First Nations and French, communities already living there. Métis resistance to the survey and the politics around it led to the Red River Rebellion of 1869 and the Northwest rebellion of 1885, both led by Louis Riel. In these events, we can see not only colonial politics, but resistance to colonial science by local knowledge which was by no means poorer.


[1] Debby Applegate, The Most famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (New York: Doubleday, 2006) 243.

[2] Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice From the South (New York: OUP, 1988) 228.

[3] Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present (Berkeley and Los Angeles: UCP, 2012) 254.

[4] David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence (Oxford: OUP, 2008).

[5] Stephen Wynn, Churchill’s Flawed Decisions: Errors in Office of The Greatest Briton (London: Pen and Sword Military, 2020) 95.

[6] Oona Eisenstadt, “Eurocentrism and Colorblindness”in Levinas Studies vol. 7 (2012) 47.

[7] See, for example, Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), and Ben Shapiro, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great (Broadside Books, 2019).

[8] Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” in Gerth, H.H., and C. Wright Mills (eds.) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (Oxford: OUP, 1946).

[9] Aníbal Quijano. “Coloniality And Modernity/Rationality,” in Cultural Studies, 21 (2-3), 2007: 174.

[10] Charles Grant, Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain: Particularly with Respect to Morals; and on the Means of Improving It (Cambridge: CUP, 2013).

[11] Zaheer Baber. “Colonizing nature: scientific knowledge, colonial power and the incorporation of India into the modern world-system” in The British Journal of Sociology 52, no. 1 (2001), 48.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 45.

[14] Quijano, 169.