Reviewing historical books : ‘Science in South Africa’, 1905

It is unusual in 2014 to review a book published in 1905, more than a century ago. However, doing so may provide perspective on what was considered scientifically important in our region at the beginning of the last century – the era in which the Royal Society of South Africa was formally established. I have written the review as though it appeared shortly after publication of the book, as is the convention, and deliberately refrained from including any wisdom of hindsight or comment from a later time. That will be left to the reader. As will become apparent, the word ‘science’ in that era was seamless and not restricted to the ‘natural sciences’, but included what are now referred to as the ‘social sciences’, the ‘applied sciences’, and even the ‘humanities’.

FlintGilchristCovepageFor further information on this topic see:
Carruthers, Jane, ‘Scientists in society: A history of the Royal Society of South Africa’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 63(1), 2008, pp.1-30.
Dubow, Saul, A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and White South Africa, 1820-2000. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008.
Dubow Saul (ed.), Science and Society in Southern Africa. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000.
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Science in South Africa: A Handbook and Review, Prepared under the Auspices of the South African Governments and the South African Association for the Advancement of Science edited by W. Flint and J.D.F. Gilchrist. 1905. Cape Town, Pretoria and Bulawayo, T. Maskew Miller.
Pp. 505.

The appearance of this book – the first compendium of scientific studies in South Africa – is much to be welcomed. It is a benchmark of the state of many fields of formal study at this time and also an encouragement and directive to future research. The first official publication of the newly formed South African Association for the Advancement of Science (S2A3), it was prepared at the suggestion last year (1904) of the Chairman, Sir David Gill, the astronomer in Cape Town, in order that a handbook on ‘scientific work and progress’ be available in honour of a visit of the British Association of the Advancement of Science this year (1905) and to elicit assistance in generating future knowledge.
Until the existing British colonies and protectorates, and Rhodesia (administered by the British South Africa Company) are combined into a political unit within the Empire, ‘South Africa’ has no formal boundaries. In this book the canvas is wide, including the entire subcontinent to the 8th parallel of south latitude, viz. the Congo-Zambesi divide. However, despite the extended geography referred to, this book has a strong bias towards the Cape Colony, perhaps for reasons of available authors and their expertise, and perhaps also the haste with which the volume has been compiled. But it is disappointing that there is so little information from the broader region, even from the other three colonies – Natal, the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal – let alone from Rhodesia, Bechuanaland and British Central Africa. The editors are both situated in Cape Town, the Reverend William Flint D.D., Methodist minister and Librarian of Parliament in the Cape Colony, and John D.F. Gilchrist D.Sc., Ph.D., a Scottish-trained zoologist and marine scientist who was appointed marine biologist in the Cape Colony in 1896 and subsequently Government Biologist.
The book is arranged in eight sections with up to five chapters in each, many of which end with a helpful list of further reading. There are two coloured plates, a few full-page maps and diagrams, numerous illustrations within the text and an index. The first section is entitled ‘Physical’ consisting of four chapters. H.C. Schunke Holloway, Government Land Surveyor of the Cape Colony and Transvaal, provides a geographical and geological overview. Three detailed contributions, on the topics of meteorology (Charles Stewart), astronomy and geodesy (Sir David Gill), and earth magnetism (J.C. Beattie), follow. In ‘Anthropological’, the second section, the three chapters will be of considerable interest to our visitors as they touch on generally unexplored scientific topics related specifically to Africa. W. Hammond-Tooke, of the Department of Agriculture in the Cape, writes on ‘Uncivilised man south of the Zambesi’, describing the physical attributes, conditions and beliefs of the Bantu race before ‘intercourse with the white man’, deliberately avoiding discussion on how ‘they are now, in Reserves, Locations or Compounds’ (p.79). Explaining that the Bantu are ‘naturally averse to continuous toil’ and ‘lighthearted and careless’, Hammond Tooke details the diet, political organisation and way of life of the major groups, including the ‘Yellow-skinned races’. Louis Peringuey, Assistant Director of the South African Museum, contributes a chapter on ‘The Stone Age in South Africa’, while R.N. Hall speculates on the African origins of Great Zimbabwe and Khami – the latter relevant to the visit of the British Association to Bulawayo.
Section 3, ‘Zoological’, contains four chapters, three of them by staff of the South African Museum. Director W.L. Sclater, outlines the discovery of South African zoology and he reviews the fauna of the region according to Classes, including detailed taxonomic and morphological descriptions of many of the larger mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs. He concludes with an overview of the zoogeography of the Ethiopian region. Peringuey sketches the insect fauna and W.F. Purcell the land and fresh-water invertebrates, paying special attention to the Arachnida – his specialist field of study – and the Onychophora, of which the rare Peripatus has attracted scientific attention. Gilchrist himself contributed the chapter on marine fauna and this is focussed on the Cape of Good Hope. There is only one chapter in Section 4, ‘Botanical’, by Harry Bolus, entitled the ‘Floral Regions of South Africa’. Again, this contribution must be faulted, not only for omitting any discussion of the regions north of the Tropic of Capricorn but also for concentrating almost entirely on the floral regions within the Cape Colony, with just brief mention of, for example, the important work of J. Medley Wood in Natal, T.R. Sim in Kaffraria, Siegfried Passarge in the Kalahari and O. Stapf on grasses. In his conclusion, Bolus notes the ‘striking marks of a similar origin [of the flora] to that of Australia’ (p.236) a matter doubtless worthy of future research.
Section 5, ‘Geological’, gives separate chapters to the Cape (A.W. Rogers), Natal (William Anderson), the Transvaal and Orange River ColonyFlintGilchristAgulhaspsml (R. Kynaston) and Rhodesia (F.P. Mennell). Because of the economic importance of mineral deposits, particularly gold (presently, after the conquest of Kruger’s republic, decisively under British control), the chapter by Kynaston, Director of the Transvaal Geological Survey, is significant. The work by Robert Broom, Professor of Geology and Zoology at Victoria College, on the fossil reptiles of South Africa will prove fascinating to the visiting British scientists, but the focus of this chapter too, is firmly on the Cape. The two chapters in Section 6, ‘Mineralogical’, move into the arena of the applied sciences. In ‘South African Metallurgy’, Edward H. Johnson, Vice-President of the Chemical, Metallurgical and Mining Society of South Africa, laments that only the metallurgy of gold, for obvious economic reasons, has thus far developed to any extent, leaving the study of base metals almost unexplored. Gardner F. Williams, General Manager of De Beers Consolidated Mines, discourses on the diamond mines of Kimberley. No doubt in future years other valuable minerals will be discovered in the region and subjected to scientific study and economic exploitation.
Section 7, on the economic sciences, begins with Duncan Hutcheon, Chief Veterinary Surgeon of the Cape Colony, discussing stock diseases, of which there are, apparently, more in south Africa than in any other part of the world. In the light of the need to modernise the economy on a firm agricultural foundation, veterinary science is a vital area of study (pp.332-361). Insect pests also threaten economic progress and Charles Lounsbury, the Cape Government Entomologist, surveys the legislation preventing the introduction of potentially dangerous plants and pathogens, and explores the ravages of locusts and other insect pests. In ‘Agricultural Problems at the Cape of Good Hope’, Eric A. Nobbs, Agricultural Assistant, outlines a bright future for the already ‘contented people’ of the Cape, but also pleads for assistance from the imperial community with more specialised scientific skills than those that can be mustered from within the colony (p.373). Some of the major issues facing agriculture, Nobbs notes, include lack of rain and the ‘regrettable characteristic’ of dry water courses (p.376). In order to ensure prosperity, such hurdles must be overcome. David E. Hutchins, Conservator of Forests in Cape Town, advocates that more attention be given to planting trees in South Africa, in accordance with Lord Milner’s comment that ‘I am as certain as I stand here that Nature intended wide tracts of South Africa to be forest country’ (p.391). The cultivation of many species of introduced trees has begun and this is sure to continue. South African College Chemistry Professor P. Daniel Hahn concentrates on viticulture, A.N. Pearson and Alexander Pardy from the Natal Department of Agriculture on the sugar industry and A.S.L. Hulett on ‘Tea Culture in Natal’, a crop more promising than coffee that collapsed a decade or so ago.
The final Section 8, ‘Educational and Historical’, consists of four chapters, each dealing with a separate colony. Certainly, without education, science will not prosper. Thomas Walker, Professor of Philosophy at Victoria College, describes the various forms of education that have held sway in the Cape since 1652. The institution of the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1873 was a milestone. Other chapters are by C.J. Mudie, Superintendent of Education in Natal, John Robinson, Secretary of the Technical Institute in Johannesburg, and Johannes Brill, Rector of Grey College in Bloemfontein. The section concludes with ‘The growth of South Africa: Historical and Sociological Data’ by editor Flint. As he explains, the region has experienced many difficulties in accomplishing ‘Science’. First, the history of the region is short in comparison with other civilised countries, beginning only in 1652. Since that time, there have been at least fifty wars that have impeded progress as the colonies have expanded their boundaries against ‘warlike and irresponsible tribes’ (p.477). Nonetheless, the protection of the British flag has been extended, even to remote locations to which mineral wealth has attracted the European. Self-government has been granted not only to the older colonies of the Cape and Natal, but more recently to the younger colony of the Transvaal. The bulk of Flint’s chapter consists of a list of dates from 1486 to 1902 and population data for the Cape, Natal, Orange River Colony and the Transvaal. The expansion of railways communication is also alluded to.
MapFlintGilchristsmlDespite the overly ambitious and even misleading title of the publication, it is an important contribution, outlining as it does, the state of science in the subcontinent as we enter a new century. It also identifies many topics for future productive research with which outside experts can assist. Whether such support eventuates from the visit of the British Association remains to be seen. However, the future of the S2A3, formed in collaboration with all four colonies and Rhodesia, and that includes professional and amateur scientists, seems assured. Many members of what has hitherto been regarded as the superior Philosophical Society of South Africa have joined the Association. More scientific endeavour lies ahead, as the Philosophical Society itself transforms into the Royal Society of South Africa, although there have been hurdles in this regard. The role of Sir David Gill has been pivotal in establishing the S2A3.. His initial fears that it would be an engineering society led by men such as German mining engineer Theodore Reunert, and thus not attractive to ‘other scientists’, must have been allayed by the publication of this book which does not include discussion on mining or even on other branches of engineering. Whether Gill’s expressed hopes that science can play a part in healing the rifts created by the recent war, and that the S2A3, can encourage a ‘national’ scientific identity have yet to be tested.