Environment as object and actor of conquest and conservationism in (post)imperial Africa

Start - End 
2020 - 2020 (ongoing)
Department of History
Research Focus 



Africa has been a scientific object in its own right for European bureaucracies since the eighteenth century. Over the course of the nineteenth century, explorers, mapmakers, natural history collectors and learned societies became entangled with imperial power structures and networks. Their involvement in imperial exchanges and transfers of both knowledge and expertise related to Africa strengthened policies for economic expansion and territorial conquest, which intensified in the last quarter of the nineteenth century (the Scramble for Africa) and gained a Belgian component due to Leopold II’s expansionist enterprise in the Congo. The connection between ‘knowledge’ of the field and the development of a system of dominating and exploiting the African people and ecosystems became firmly established. It is essential to determine how the ‘colonial sciences’ became ‘servants’ of colonial rule, and therefore became a decisive factor in the changing relationships between humans and the environment.

Mastering African territories

Geography in particular was key to shaping some notable features of expansionist ideologies. Geographical societies stimulated erudite discussions regarding the exploration and exploitation of territories in Africa. Via maps, they introduced their members to the continual spatial modifications of the economic, social and natural landscape, such as newly constructed or planned communication routes, the tropical forests rich in hardwood, and the diversity of human populations and animals, now considered as ‘resources’. Over time, human agency within the colonial sphere, including the development of new forms of management in the name of ‘conservationism’, deeply modified both the landscape and the environment, thus provoking contention and conflict at various levels.

The ‘penitent butchers’, or the birth of conservationism

The research sheds light on the dynamics between the conquest of territories – encompassing in its spectrum colonised people, animals, and the environment – and the development of wildlife conservationism: the latter is largely the product of Western international networks developed from the early twentieth century in order to pursue the exploitation of natural ‘resources’ while avoiding their depletion. Most conservationists were themselves engaged in the mass appropriation of wildlife, frequently in a direct manner, being keen hunters (the ‘penitent butchers’). The main conservationist guidelines – the establishment of reserves and national parks, the taming and domestication of wildlife, and the definition of protected species – gradually developed into forms of scientific, touristic and hunting exploitation of wildlife for Western users only. Being thus socially and racially discriminatory, these options deeply impacted socio-environmental relationships in the long term.

Resistances and environmental agency

Humans and animals regularly challenged the dominating character of colonial conquest and conservationism. African hunters developed ‘poaching’ practices in order to circumvent colonial law. Animals adapted, escaped, fought back or resisted their appropriation, regularly dying before being exhibited in the metropolitan zoos as living archetypes of conquest or conservationism. These resistances shed light on the failure of conservationism in the Congo. They demonstrate that these shortcomings were not only, as was regularly argued by colonial authorities, the result of a lax approach to the application of law or a lack of colonial control, but largely the product of the utilitarian essence infusing every inch of conservationism, embodied, for instance, by the official collection and export of the most protected species.


In order to better understand the reshapings and conflicts induced by the exploitation and conservation of natural ‘resources’, this research includes all the protagonists of colonial socio-environmental dynamics in the narrative: Western scientists, settlers and conservationists, African residents and experts, as well as the environment and animals themselves.

This inclusive version of history relies on a multifaceted methodology:

  • a hybrid actor-centred methodological approach yielding a prosopography of actors and intellectual ‘lifecourse analyses’ based on social network analysis, bibliometric techniques and digital methods developed in collaboration with the Ghent Centre for Digital Humanities.
  • a history from below of colonial, African and transcultural wildlife management policies and practices drawing on a critical study of colonial sources, fieldwork and oral histories.
  • a pluridisciplinary perspective including ethological, ecological and conservation biology insights.