Telling Stories of the Hidden Colonial Histories of Our Geological Institutions

Dr Munira Raji

Postdoctoral Researcher

Department of Geography, Geology & Environment

University of Hull

The ‘Decolonising UK Earth Science pedagogy – from the hidden histories of our geological institutions to inclusive curricula‘ project focuses on exploring the unrecognised knowledge upon which the foundational institutions of Earth Science are built and how this legacy creates modern-day inequity in our discipline. It aims to begin dismantling this inequity by taking a decolonising Earth Science pedagogy and curriculum approach. The project brings a number of institutions together: the University of Hull (Geology and the Wilberforce Institute); the University of Leeds; Queen’s University of Belfast; Sheffield Hallam University; the British Geological Survey; the Geological Society of London; and the Royal Geographical Society.

It was during the late eighteenth century that many of the principles, theories, laws and practices that shape the (Western) academic discipline of Earth Science were established (Sangwan, 1993). Geology emerged as a specialised branch of science in the colonial state, playing an important role in locating the mineral resources that were needed to fuel growing industrial societies. The foundations of the field, and the institutions that arose during this time, benefitted from, and perpetuated, resource extraction and the knowledge it required, and were essential tools for imperial development and expansion (Rogers et al., 2022). This project will examine the integral role British geologists played in the quest for industrialisation and the expansion of British colonial rule in Africa and India from the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. Exploitable deposits of coal, copper, iron, and limestone’s essential smelting flux were vital for the long-term development of steamship lines, railways, and industry, for example. Mineral surveys thus became potent tools in the hands of the colonising British and ensured that geologists worked hand in hand with the most powerful organisations for colonial exploitation.

Left Image: Surveyor and locals panning for gold in alluvial workings. Right Image: Surveyor in dugout canoe. Images downloaded from the British Geological Survey, E.O. Teale photograph collection ©NERC. (Source: Special collections/ E.O. Teale photograph collection 1900s-1930s (mostly Africa))

Geologists recruited through the Colonial Office in London played a significant role in identifying which territories were resourceful. The first Colonial Mineral Surveys started in Southern and Northern Nigeria and Nyasaland between 1906-1909, and the first Colonial Geological Survey was established on the Gold Coast in 1913. At the end of the First World War, the British government promoted and intensified geological surveys in several African territories of the Empire – Uganda, Sierra Leone and Nigeria in 1918, Tanzania in 1925 and Kenya in 1933. Some geologists were heralded for their pioneering discoveries. Sir Albert Ernest Kitson (Fellow of the Geological Society of London, Principal mineral surveyor in Southern Nigeria and Director of the Gold Coast Geological Survey) is credited with the discovery of economically significant deposits of coal in Southern Nigeria and manganese, diamonds, and bauxite in the Gold Coast.

Illustrative photographs of Mineral Survey party with Nigerian locals. Images taken from Southern Nigeria: Some Considerations of Its Structure, People, and Natural History by Albert Ernest Kitson, 1913. Source: The Geographical Journal, January 1913, Vol. 41, No. 1 (January 1913), pp. 16-34.

Local people were used as guides, carriers, labourers, and camp guides in menial jobs that did not pay for their geological expertise, even though our investigations have revealed some local knowledge was cited in reports and publications. However, the first Nigerian to be employed as a geologist in the Colonial Geological Surveys was Okezie, C.N. (BSc), who was not appointed until 1954.

In addition, though local use of these resources may have been extensive, opportunities for the indigenous population to benefit from them were often brought to an end under colonial rule. Following discoveries of gold (the Witwatersrand gold field) and coal (in the Transvaal and the neighbouring Natal colony), 75,500 British citizens migrated to South Africa in search of mineral wealth, and there was a rapid demand for native lands. The result was The Natives Land Act of 1913, which reserved most of the land for White ownership, and forced many Black farmers and landowners to work as wage labourers on land that had previously been under their control. In 1930, after the British geologist, Major John D. Pollet had reported the discovery of diamonds in Sierra Leone, digging for minerals by native Sierra Leoneans was made illegal.

Other colonising European powers practised the use of geology for colonial expansion in Africa and the exploitation of its mineral resources. The Hidden Histories project aims to explore these themes further, uncovering untold stories of using Earth Sciences as a tool of exploitation. It will reveal how local guides and intermediaries underpinned the activities of the colonial surveys and hopes to identify specific instances of where and how local and indigenous geological knowledge was exploited during colonial exploratory surveys and in the construction of the modern discipline of Earth Science. In addition, we aim to make explicit the exclusion of different minority groups in geological exploration and knowledge production. This will support the first part of our project – to decolonise the Earth Science curriculum as it is taught in the UK. The second part will be to develop open-access educational resources that academics can incorporate into their programmes on these themes. A project website with our findings and decolonisation resources is coming soon – watch this space!