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WSDS STUDENT TAKES: Scramble for Africa

This article is a part of ’WSDS Student Takes’, a series written by students of InsSciDE’s Warsaw Science Diplomacy School 2020.

Read all about the programme in the WSDS Chronicles or see the other Student Takes in the yellow box on the right.

Science Diplomacy and the Scramble for Africa

By Farah Ouechtati, Jenice Jean Goveas

The group from WSDS20 that discussed the ‘Scramble for Africa’ case included researchers, diplomacy practitioners and government officials, and was mentored by case study author Dr Daniel Gamito Marques. The case study revealed the relevance of European scientists in diplomatic negotiations during the 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’, a period of colonisation of Africa by Europeans. The group expanded their own notions of ‘science diplomats’ as they dissected the professional lives of two Portuguese naturalists who attained prominent political positions through their scientific activities and informed colonial policies that helped shape Portugal’s imperial identity. Discussions arose around the lasting impacts of colonial history, the recent proposition of an ongoing ‘new scramble for Africa’, and revelations of the darker side of science diplomacy.

The Scramble and the role of science

A series of scientific advancements coupled with strong political competition between imperial powers snowballed into what became known as the ‘Scramble-’ or ‘Race for Africa’, involving Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Italy. The isolation of quinine, an antimalarial compound, the development of steamboats and automatic machine guns allowed European troops to travel to Africa safely, rapidly and with unprecedented force. Improvements in cartography techniques enabled the detection of natural resources and thereby informed imperial strategy. Knowledge of African geography and peoples became powerful leverage in the diplomatic negotiations which led to Europeans seizing and partitioning almost the entire African continent in little more than three decades (1880–1914).

Scientists, science (and) diplomacy

The case study by Daniel hones in on José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage, a renowned zoologist from Lisbon Polytechnic School. He networked well with the actors invested in Portugal’s colonial and foreign affairs and served in a range of roles, including president of the (private) Geographical Society of Lisbon, member of the (governmental) Geographical Commission, Minister of the Navy and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Bocage conducted several diplomatic negotiations, combining his scientific expertise and diplomatic power to pursue Portuguese colonial interests, especially at the Berlin Conference 1884-1885, where he was instrumental in the defense of Portuguese claims to Africa. His greatest collaborator was José de Anchieta, a Portuguese explorer and naturalist who travelled extensively through Angola’s hinterland collecting animals and plant specimens. The process of retrieving these specimens resulted in vast intelligence on the geography, history, culture, colonial administration, agencies, and moves of other foreign explorers.

In the 1870s, João de Andrade Corvo, a professor of botany and agriculture at the Lisbon Polytechnic, also served as Minister of Foreign Affairs. In this distinct period of the Scramble, several countries sponsored scientific expeditions to Africa, with Corvo driving Portugal’s expeditions to Angola. His authority in agricultural affairs was key to his political success and he managed to monopolize discussions around Portuguese colonial policies through the creation of the Geographical Commission.

Science diplomacy is diplomacy

Analysis of this case study and the Scramble for Africa highlighted that connections between science and diplomacy did not emerge only after World War II, as is suggested by science diplomacy’s contemporary etymology. The case provides evidence that the development of science diplomacy practices stem from much earlier times, with scientists such as Bocage and Corvo being systematically involved in diplomatic negotiations as early as the 19th century. However, until then, essentially no former Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs had had a scientific background. Their career development illuminates the versatile role of a scientist in diplomacy and hints at the skills needed in interfacing between science and diplomacy.

Science as leverage

Bocage and Corvo both played key roles in Portuguese foreign affairs, with their scientific expertise often central to their political ascent and colonial negotiations during the Scramble for Africa. Studying the case raises certain questions of ethics within science diplomacy and contributes important historical context to notion of ’science diplomats’. While dominant discourse conveys science and science diplomacy as universal tools for fostering cooperation on global issues, it is important to acknowledge and understand that science and technology in foreign affairs is not always for common benefit. In fact, in advancing a country’s national needs, science may be instrumentalized for the opposite purpose. These insights depict a sometimes overlooked utilitarian application of science diplomacy, pointing to the importance of investigating its history and the history of sciences to thoroughly understand science diplomacy, including its nuances, evolution and possible classifications.


Published 12 October 2020

WSDS Student Takes: Scramble for Africa

Team Scramble for Africa/Gamito Marques led by Daniel Gamito Marques of WP Science Diplomats

Authors: Farah Ouechtati, Jenice Jean Goveas

Read all about the programme in the WSDS Chronicles

All Student Takes articles:
Overview: Traversing boundaries during a virtual week in Warsaw

Team Biodiversity/Le Roux: Towards a Joint Approach for EU Science Diplomacy

Team Ocean/Robinson: Science Diplomacy and the Litter at Sea

Click to learn about WSDS 2021