Africa, Malthus and Eugenics

by Liam Scheff

A few thoughts on African loss of life (and eugenics), for those for whom history began before 1979.

We’re told that Africa has an AIDS problem. I used to think this was so. But after copious reading research and discussion, I am more than fairly convinced that Africa has a number of severe problems that have been collected together and name-branded ‘AIDS’.

Last year I spoke with an epidemioligist, a specialist in water-safety, just returned from Uganda. She showed me her pictures of the tin-shack shanty towns, thrown up on the muddy banks of garbage heaps and drainage ditches, children playing in the refuse. I asked, where’s the clean water? That, she said, was a problem. I asked, how do you tell dysentery, cholera, TB, malaria and sepsis, and all the rest of what occurs, from AIDS?

That, she said, was the problem.

She added, with some frustration – “But you can’t get a grant to do anything over there, unless it has the words “HIV/AIDS” in the title.”

So, no clean water, no sewage systems, but only AZT and Nevirapine for Africa?

But I’m looking for the historical perspective. What was Africa like before 1985, the year the label was made for Africans in Bangui, in the Central African Republic (more on that here ).

Is AIDS – Illness, plague, famine and early mortality in Africa – a modern phenomenon? Ask Thomas Malthus. But don’t ask him about slavery, at least, not much:

From Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798): Book 1, Ch VIII Of the Checks to the Population in different parts of Africa

The wars in Africa are of two kinds, one called Killi, that which is openly avowed; and the other, Tegria, plundering or stealing. These latter are very common…. – These plundering excursions always produce speedy retaliation.”

“The insecurity of property arising from this constant exposure to plunder, must necessarily have a most baneful effect on industry…The waste of life in these constant wars and predatory incursion must be considerable and [surgeon/explorer Mungo] Park agrees with [natural historian Georges] Buffon in stating, that independently of violent causes, longevity is rare among the negroes.”

“At forty, he says, most of them become grey-haired and covered with wrinkles, and few of them survive the age of fifty-fife or sixty. Boffon attributes this shortness of life to the premature intercourse of the sexes, and very early and excessive debauchery.

Ah yes, Negro Debauchery…. we’ve heard this tune before. Not war, pestilence, famine or… well, sit tight..

Africa has been at all times the principle mart of slaves. The drains of its population in this way have been great and constant, particularly since their introduction into the European colonies; but perhaps, as Dr. Franklin observes, it would be difficult to find the gap that has been made by a hundred years’ exportation of negroes which has blackened half America. For notwithstanding this constant emigration, the loss of numbers from incessant war, and checks to increase from vice and other causes, it appears that the population is continually pressing against the limits of the means of subsistence.”

Yes, never mind the slave-taking of the strongest and youngest, and the never-ending cycles of war… Those negroes just eat too much!

This is Malthus’ argument against poverty, essentially: Too many people breed poverty. Not poverty breeds many people, which is the actually observed phenomenon, and that wealth breeds conservatism… No, in Malthus’ era, as the English empire accustomed itself to the loss of the Americas, held a bloody grip on India, and struggled against the pressures of a rising working class (via agrarian and industrial revolutions), the worker was no longer content to just be a serf, and the ruling class found itself profoundly challenged in its historical role.

The revolution in France, England’s commerical and historical rival, had brought to the fore new ideas about the limits of “L’etat, C’est Moi”, of private property and the priviledges of the ruling class, versus the new and burgeoning bourgeoisie.

And so, naturally, it was this this idea – Overpopulation by the unwashed lower classes, the uncivilized, uncouth (and, of course, Black) – that was the probable cause of the root of all future evils to expound.

He continues, however, in a vein nearing reality:

According to Park, scarce years and famines are frequent. Among four principal causes of slavery in Africa, he mentions famine next to war and the express permission given to masters to sell their domestic slaves for the support of their family…seems to imply the not unfrequent recurrence of severe want*. During a great scarcity which lasted for three years in the countries of the Gambia, great numbers of people became slaves. Park was assured by Dr. Laidley that at that time many free men came, and begged with great earnestness to be put upon his slave chain to save them from perishing with hunger.”

Ah, the beneficence of the West..

But what is this? What could explain the following?:

[I]n a climate in which there appears to be many predisposing causes of sickness, it is difficult to conceive that this state of wretchedness does not powerfully contribute to the extraordinary mortality which has been observed in some of these countries.”

Extraordinary Mortality? Must be AIDS …I suppose AIDS began in the 1700s then? Must have been dirty needles, or maybe a super-strain…you know, because of all the Methadone being used by those debauched, sex-crazed negroes…

”[T]he whole coast of the Red Sea, from Suez to Babelmandel, is extremely unwholesome, but more especially between the tropics. Violent fevers, called there Nedad, make the principal figure in this fatal list, and generally terminate the third day in death. Fear frequently seizes strangers upon the first sight of the great mortality which they observe on their first arrival.”

It surely does, Thomas, it surely does.

Oh, and there’s more…

“In Gondar, fevers perpetually reign, and the inhabitants are all of the colour of a corpse.

“In Sire’, one of the finest countries in the world, putrid fevers of the very worst kind are almost constant. in the low grounds of Abyssinia [Ancient Ethiopia, in part], in general, malignant tertians occasion a great mortality. And ever where the small-pox makes great ravages, particularly among the nations bordering on Abyssinia, where it sometimes extinguishes whole tribes.”

The effect of poverty, with bad diet, and, its almost constant concomitant, want of cleanliness, in aggravating malignant distempers, is well known; and this kind of wretchedness seems generally to prevail. Of Tchagassa, near Gondar, [explorer/travel writer James] Bruce observes that the inhabitants, notwithstanding their threefold harvests, are miserably poor.”

and more…

“The Agows, one of the most considerable nations of Abyssinia in point of number, are described by Bruce as living in a state of misery and penury scarcely to be conceived. We saw a number of women, he says, wrinkled and sun-burnt so as scarcely to appear human, wandering about under a burning sun with one and sometimes two children upon their backs, gathering the seeds of bent grass to make a kind of bread.”

The Agow women begin to bear children at eleven years old. They marry generally about that age, and there is no such thing as barrenness known among them.”

“In Dixan, one of the frontier towns of Abyssinia, the only trade is that of selling children. Five hundred are exported annually to Arabia; and in times of scarcity, Bruce observes, four times that number.

and more…

“At half past six,” Bruce says, “we arrived at Garigana, a village whose inhabitants had all perished with hunger the year before; their wretched bones being all unburied and scattered upon the surface of the ground where the village formerly stood. We encamped among the bones of the dead; no space could be found free from them.”

“Of another town or village in his route he observes, “The strength of Teawa was 25 horse. The rest of the inhabitants might be 1200 naked miserable and despicable Arabs, like the rest of those which live in villages. Such was the state of Teawa. Its consequence was only to remain till the Daveina Arabs should resolve to attack it, when its corn-fields being burnt and destroyed in a night by a multitude of horsemen, the bones of its inhabitants scattered upon the earth would be all its remains, like those of the miserable village of Garigana.”

…but who reads history? Certainly not eugenicists. It would put them out of business!

The solution to all of this? Clean water systems, banning slavery? Implementing supportive and fair economic and trade practices???

Oh, come now! Far too much work. The solution? Just ask Margaret Sanger …Or Bob Gallo.

One thought on “Africa, Malthus and Eugenics

  1. I asked, where’s the clean water? That, she said, was a problem. I asked, how do you tell dysentery, cholera, TB, malaria and sepsis, and all the rest of what occurs, from AIDS?

    That, she said, was the problem.

    Of course there are a thousand solutions for clean water, and people are digging wells and doing great works. But what can the Africans themselves do when all they have (if they are lucky) is water from a river or a lake that more often than not will be contaminated and cause them to get sick?

    Here’s a simple method for cleaning your water. Let the sun sterilize it.

    Low-tech solar water purification

    And as you mention food, some smart people have found a way to grow sufficient food for a family and more in a neat little thing they call a “keyhole garden”. Check it out.

    Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjcjCCx3BWY

    http://www.sendacow.org.uk/schools/africangardens/keyholegardens

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