In his penetrating speech at the acceptance of his honorary doctorate in literature in Nijmegen earlier this year, Adriaan van Dis described how the white colonial world has been confronted with its own racist archive in recent decades. We must, in the consciousness of our tainted language, read the past like a book, puncture Eurocentrism, but also see the complexity. Linguistic communities were “separated by colonial borders, but dozens of oral languages were also recorded.”
Complexity refers to multiple layers. Just like in a novel, there is more than one story, gradation between good and evil, right and wrong. You see something similar in agricultural and food science. I have visited many former colonial testing stations, such as Yangambi, once the great testing station of the Belgian colonial power, in a bend of the Congo River, 1,600 kilometers from the capital Kinshasa. Other experimental stations in Africa were also far from civilization. In physical and mental isolation, generations of agronomists worked for decades to improve food crops for the local population. Some stayed there forever and married a woman from a nearby village. Most may have behaved like disrespectful colonial bosses by today’s standards. At the same time, they were committed in their own way. They learned the language and the names of plants and animals. The best of them remained curious throughout their lives and trained countless assistants.
Their devotion is the other side of the story of a terrible colonial rule that disrupted local tribes and corrupted new elites.
Two years ago, the Gonçalvez Commission recommended that colonial looted art be returned unconditionally. The special restitution committee will only start work this year. The return will not be easy and quick, but there is no doubt that art must be restored. It is striking that there is almost no discussion of biological colonial treasures and how they were collected. Then I think of seeds of plants, stuffed or live animals, not to mention human remains. These seeds laid the foundation for hugely lucrative trade flows of colonial commodities such as tea, coffee, rubber, oil palm, cotton, spices and medicines such as quinine. It has been internationally agreed that the seeds of food crops, the genetic resources, are the common heritage of mankind, but not a word has been said about the past.
It is also time to examine broadly and objectively what exactly happened during the many decades of national and international colonial research in agriculture, food and health, and whether apologies or reparations are in order. It will not be easy. What labor was used in the experimental fields, were land and water rights and sacred sites respected when building experimental stations, and was the population asked for medical research?
And what about the export of the soil’s fertility via the extensive trade in colonial goods? Prior to the invention and use of synthetic fertilizers, from the first quarter of the 20th century, the soil in the colonies was depleted by agricultural runoff. It may not be much per year, because only a small part of the biomass was taken (herbs, coffee beans, tea leaves), but calculated over centuries, it counts. You may object that, for example, in present-day Indonesia, the rich soils arose from volcanic material from the deeper layers of the earth, which may possibly count as the heritage of mankind. Be that as it may, reading the complexities of biological colonial history and any biological is just beginning.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 17 October 2022