SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY (Western Colonialism)

The connections between science, technology, and Western colonialism are strong and complex. The connections were driven and shaped by the European scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, as well as the growing authority of science in the eighteenth century Enlightenment period. Together, these developments established a modern mentality of dominance and expansion, which differed significantly from the premodern period. The new methods of science drove and seemed to vindicate humankind’s dominance over, and knowledge of, nature. This ambition frequently translated into exploration, expansion of territory, and consolidation of European authority over indigenous people.

There are four domains of activity where scientific and technological developments intersected most clearly with Western colonialism. First, ever-changing technologies of travel both facilitated and encouraged exploration and territorial expansion. These related both to ocean travel and land travel, in particular the railroad. Second, communication technologies evolved rapidly, especially in the nineteenth century, linking continents and people in novel ways. Innovations in transport and communication in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were spurred by industrializing Britain, and later France, Germany, and the United States. Crucial new technologies were created, themselves requiring extensive circuits of colonial trade in raw materials.

The third domain involves scientific advancements in the field of medicine and health care. Western colonialism created vast medical problems of illness, especially epidemics of infectious disease in indigenous communities. But conversely and paradoxically, one of the driving forces of Western colonialism came to be an apparently curing and caring one, whereby Western hygiene and public health were understood to be one of the great benefits brought to different parts of the world. Fourth, Western science and technology facilitated the development of new arms and weapons. While the contest of arms between colonizers and the colonized was not always as one-sided as might be expected, firearms technology permitted colonization of local people, often in the most brutal way. Differential arms technology also determined the outcome of territorial wars between colonial powers. Since 1450, the European idea of progress has applied to scientific knowledge, imperial territorial, military and administrative expansion, and the increasingly dominant adherence to a Western “civilizing” mission.


Technologies of transport and travel have enabled and shaped Western colonialism from the Renaissance period onward. The Iberian powers of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic honed sailing and navigating skills for military and fishing purposes over many generations. Square sails were increasingly used alongside lateen sails, an innovation from the Islamic world, which permitted ships to beat into the wind. Spanish and Portuguese sailors in particular developed skills, knowledge, and technology for increasingly wide Atlantic voyages, to the Cape Verde Islands, the Madeiras, and the Canary Islands; along the African coast; and to the Americas.

Technology to make great ocean voyages was within the grasp of not just the Europeans, however. Chinese navigation and shipping knowledge was comparable in the early period, and Polynesian cultures made long Pacific voyages, between the Hawaiian Islands and Aotearoa/New Zealand, for example. In the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Atlantic, and in the eighteenth-century Pacific, European explorers, traders, missionaries, and military often adopted and adapted local means of transport, especially inland. Hudson Bay Company traders around the North American Great Lakes, for example, typically traveled by canoe. However, European navigating, sailing, mapping, and shipbuilding technology incrementally increased over many generations, facilitating the establishment of seasonal coastal trading posts, the permanent plantation settlements, and the commercial endeavors of the Atlantic: slavery and the sugar, tobacco, and fur trades.

The Great Eastern. This legendary ship, designed by the British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunei and built in the 1850s, laid the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable, but was scrapped as financially unviable in 1889. This illustration appeared in 1859 in the Illustrated London News.

The Great Eastern. This legendary ship, designed by the British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunei and built in the 1850s, laid the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable, but was scrapped as financially unviable in 1889. This illustration appeared in 1859 in the Illustrated London News.

Steam power and iron were the twin innovations of the British industrial revolution, and both revolutionized transportation, in turn shaping events in the colonial world. In the nineteenth century, there was a transition away from wooden to iron-hulled ships. With so many European forests denuded, and British shipbuilding largely importing timber, iron offered many advantages for the shipbuilding industries. Wrought iron ships weighed far less, were more durable and the design of ships—their possible size and shape—was more flexible. From the late 1870s, a further transition from wrought iron to steel made ships lighter and more adaptable again.

The nineteenth-century transition from sail to steam affected both oceanic transport and river transport, and facilitated Western exploration of interior African, Asian, and American waterways. Especially in the African continent, steamships made travel possible deep inside a region previously largely closed to Europeans. Developing from the navigation of the Hudson River in New York in 1807, the steam-powered ship appeared in colonial contexts from the 1820s, especially in India, in British movement around China, and later in Africa.

As early as the 1830s, steamers were regularly carrying passengers and freight along the Ganges, and steamers came to be central to various military encounters, for example in the war between the British East India Company and the Kingdom of Burma from 1824. Steam navigation between Britain and India soon also became a reality. The British government invested in exploratory navigation by steamer across two overland routes: via Mesopotamia and via Egypt, the latter becoming the main route after the Suez Canal opened in 1869. Hybrid steam/sail transport across the Atlantic was possible from 1819, and from 1832 by steam alone. While the steamers did not entirely eclipse sail, especially for navies, they nonetheless reduced travel time considerably between west and east, north and south.

The development of railroads in the 1840s and 1850s consolidated internal expansion and investment in many areas, tying western and colonial economies ever more tightly. In Britain, for example, railroads interested the Lancashire cotton industry in particular, which sought rapid access to cotton-growing districts, as well as to Indian consumers of cotton garments. By the 1860s and 1870s, railway lines criss-crossed the Indian subcontinent. This involved building large bridges across frequently flooding rivers, themselves considerable engineering feats. In the same period, the transcontinental railroads spanned North America from east to west, bringing an infrastructure and a cultural and administrative permanence to territory and people, who had previously been in a more ambiguous and flexible frontier relationship with colonizers. Thus while railroads often brought easy transport, commercial reliability, and predictability to colonial sites, it was usually at the expense of local trade, communications, economies, and cultures.


Part of the drive for quicker transportation was to speed up communication services between colonial peripheries and centers. By sail, letters between, for example, France and Indochina, between Britain and the Straits Settlements, took months, on both outward and return voyages. The steamer revolution steadily shortened this over the nineteenth century, and steam companies competitively coveted much-sought government contracts to deliver mail. For example, the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company (P&O) won the contract to deliver mail from Britain to Gibraltar and then to Alexandria in Egypt, connecting with the Indian Navy’s mail service from Bombay to Suez, where mail was transported between seas on camels. The Suez Canal, opening in 1869, was largely a French initiative. It was impressive less in terms of engineering technology, than in terms of scale and significance. Built mainly by Egyptians, it was used largely by British ships. The territorial acquisition of Egypt in 1882 by the British was almost entirely about strategically securing the crucial Suez Canal route.

It was the technology of cable telegraphy—first land, and then submarine—that enabled even quicker communication. By 1865 a cable linked Britain with India, but ran across land, through much non-British territory. Land cables could always be sabotaged and cut, and it was not until a new line was laid in 1870—mainly submarine from Britain to Gibraltar, Malta, and Alexandria and then to Suez and India—that telegraph between Britain and India was rapid and reliable.

French colonies were also increasingly linked by telegraphy, with a line laid between France and Algeria in 1879. The increasing reliance on cables for communication was occasionally the rationale for gaining control of territory. At other points it was crucial for communication in times of war, for example the Anglo-Boer War. Telegraphy reduced global communication time from weeks and months, to hours and days, thus promoting and enabling ever-expanding trade and business around the colonial world of the late nineteenth century.

Cables and telegraphs were interrupted as a technology by the use of radio waves and wireless communication in the early twentieth century. In 1901 the first radio waves were transmitted across the Atlantic, from Cornwall to Newfoundland. Soon after, wireless stations appeared in the British, French, and German colonies, often with the ambition to create seamless ”wireless chains” around the empires. After 1924 shortwave transmission gave another burst of energy to imperial telecommunications, bringing the most isolated places within instant reach. Much cable telegraphy business had switched to shortwave wireless communication by the late 1920s.


Questions of health and medicine were linked to the colonial enterprise from the outset. As soon as Europeans crossed the Atlantic, and explored and colonized the lands and people of Central America and the Caribbean, high mortality and illness rates became evident. Because of this experience of mortality, and because of longstanding climatic understanding of health and disease, in which elements of heat, moisture, air, and environment were seen to be causative, a new field of medicine and science emerged. Initially under the rubric of ”the diseases of warm climates,” the discipline of tropical medicine arose explicitly from the colonial experience. To some extent, this colonial medicine was concerned with the mortality of Africans on the slave ships and on American plantations, often less for humanitarian than commercial reasons. In the main, however, the concern was to reduce the massive mortality rates of European military, settlers, missionaries, and travellers.

The Maxim Gun. This late nineteenth-century illustration depicts the first trial of the automatic Maxim machine gun by British Troops in Africa in 1887. The gun was designed by Hiram Maxim in the early 1880s.

The Maxim Gun. This late nineteenth-century illustration depicts the first trial of the automatic Maxim machine gun by British Troops in Africa in 1887. The gun was designed by Hiram Maxim in the early 1880s.

The colonial advance from the sixteenth century onward brought hitherto unknown microbes to the New World and brought others back to Europe, an interaction sometimes called the Columbian exchange. The demographic effects between colonizer and colonized populations were vastly different, however. For the Aztecs and Maya of Central America, for the Hawaiians, and for the Eora of eastern Australia, epidemics of infectious diseases meant illness, death, and often rapid depopulation. Smallpox and tuberculosis killed some people, diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhoea frequently rendered others infertile, seriously altering patterns of reproduction and population replacement. Moreover, the massive changes in land use that often accompanied European colonization seriously compromised indigenous people’s health through hunger and starvation, thus unravelling the viability of traditional social and political organization.

Western colonialism, then, created health and medical problems for Europeans, for indigenous people, and for the growing diasporas of people in forced and free migration. But colonialism was also driven by a desire to ameliorate these problems, and increasingly so over the centuries. Thus, for example, if the Hudson Bay Company traders brought smallpox—both wittingly and unwittingly—they also sometimes brought the technology and the material of the smallpox vaccine. Often practical assistance with health and hygiene were the first moves made by colonial missionaries around the world. Western and Christian health care undoubtedly relieved some suffering, but it was also political: it was a means of buying goodwill and, not infrequently, dependence and obligation. By the nineteenth century, when European, North American, and Australasian governments were developing public health bureaucracies and infrastructures in their home countries, the extension of hygiene as rationale for colonial rule of indigenous people became increasingly common.

Pharmacological developments also had a mutual relationship to colonialism, both deriving from and facilitating European expansion. The anti-malarial drug quinine is one example. Local people in the Andes had long recognized the curative and preventive properties of the bark of the cinchona tree. Jesuits brought the bark to Europe in the seventeenth century, and thereafter securing sources of the bark was one reason for increasingly penetrating journeys into the region. Prompted by the need to reduce death rates from malaria in the military, French scientists successfully extracted quinine from the cinchona bark in 1820, undertook experimental research in Algeria, and began commercial production.

Thereafter, large quantities of quinine as anti-malarial prophylaxis were widely used, especially by British and French troops in tropical colonies. Its well-known efficacy clearly assisted British, U.S. and German explorations through Central Africa, and enabled a more permanent French presence in both North and West Africa. Mortality rates for European military as well as civilian populations in colonies began to fall dramatically, and the demand for the bark grew accordingly. This in turn spurred other colonial initiatives to cultivate the tree outside the Andes. The Netherlands East Indies government grew it successfully in Java, as did the British government in India. In the case of malaria, the cinchona tree, and quinine, colonialism created the conditions both of demand and supply.


The history of colonialism is also the history of war. Armed combat took place between invading colonizers and indigenous people, from the Spanish invasion of central America, to the British expansion into the Australian continent, to Germans in the Congo. It also took place between competing colonial powers, often involving local people as well. The wars between the French and British in North America through the eighteenth century, for example, were consistently about securing territory on that continent. Especially from the middle of the nineteenth century, the technologies of firearms, and what historians sometimes call the arms gap, decided outcomes.

The arms gap sometimes enabled the massacre of local people by colonizers, with or without government consent. For example, the mass killing of the Kenyan Mau Mau rebels and civilians by the British after 1952 took the force it did partly because of technology available. But it was not always the case that those with firearms were at an unquestioned advantage in colonial wars. For example, when British colonists came to settle in Sydney from 1788, they were often anxious about the spearing skills of the local men, used both to kill and for ritual punishment. The muzzle-loading muskets, which British soldiers and settlers held in that instance, took around one minute to load, and they had to be kept dry. They were simply not always a match for spearing technology. Nor was it consistently the case that colonized people were without firearms. People long involved in the slave trade in Africa, for example, were often armed with muskets and ammunition. The exchange of slaves for firearms was a basic one in that commercial circuit, although often the crudest and cheapest kind of firearm was bartered.

In another example, the Cree in present-day Canada exchanged furs for guns, dealing as middlemen between the Hudson Bay Company and other Native groups, who gradually incorporated traded firearms into their way of life. The world of colonialism was constantly involved in firearms dealing.

Partly because of this trade, and driven by the demands of Western warfare, firearms technology gained pace in the nineteenth century. The invention of the small metal cap for explosives meant that after 1814 the imperative to keep muskets dry was minimized. New oblong bullets were invented in France in 1848, and were tested in the colonies: the French used these bullets first in Algeria, and the British against the Xhosa in the Kaffir War of 1851-1852. Around the 1860s there was a crucial technological shift from muzzleloaders to breechloaders. It was the breech loading gun that created a major discrepancy in power between those with and those without. The American-developed ”repeating rifle” and the Maxim, invented by Hiram S. Maxim in 1884, only increased this discrepancy in power. The Maxim was light and could shoot multiple bullets each second. The explorer of Africa, Henry Morton Stanley, had a Maxim gun on his 1886-1888 expedition, as did Lord Kitchener in his conquest of the Sudan in 1898. Both used the gun to achieve their respective colonizing goals.

Knowledge, technology, and power go together. The history of colonialism is a history of often vastly different knowledge systems encountering one other. It is a history of competing, transferring, and evolving technologies. And it is a history of power relations, not always expressed physically and technologically, but frequently so. Major changes in the European world from the Renaissance onward, including the scientific revolution, the development of mercantile capitalism, the industrial revolution, and the communications revolution—all occurred in the era of colonialism, not incidentally, but relatedly. The search for a newly valued scientific knowledge itself explicitly drove many European expeditions, especially in the eighteenth century. The development of technology often facilitated new places and means of travel, exploration, and colonization. Sometimes, science and technology were actively employed to rationalize extended colonial rule of people and territory, under a humanitarian and civilizing logic. Always, technologies established new Western infrastructures in foreign places, which created a momentum of exponential expansion for trade, commerce, government, and settlement.

Next post:

Previous post: