Insect control and the empire after 1945: constructing East Africa as a resource for government and business

Histories of the use of DDT by Britain do not pay much attention to the deployment of these chemicals in Britain’s colonies, and the histories we have of the use of DDT to tackle tropical disease are often focussed on the work of the World Health Organisation. There is little work that has explored insecticide use in Britain’s African colonies between 1945 and 1964 in either the fields of disease control or agriculture.

This paper will explore the significance of Britain’s tropical colonies for the history of insecticides, showing the way that the empire was constructed as a resource, both practically and rhetorically, by domestic government and business. After 1945, pest control campaigns in the colonies had an important political function for the British government as they offered a chance to demonstrate the supposedly enduring virtues of British imperialism. For contractors that sold spraying services to farmers, the colonial empire offered a solution to the business problem of what to do outside of the growing season at home. Britain’s East African colonies were also constructed as a site for government experimentation with chemicals, and new spraying techniques using aircraft, with potential benefit for Britain’s research programme in chemical warfare.

Insecticides were a part of the history of East Africa in the late colonial period before the advent of interventions sponsored by the WHO. Importantly, Britain’s African colonies were not just sites of pesticide action in which chemicals such as DDT were applied to combat malaria by governments which wished to demonstrate their humanitarian values during the Cold War. East Africa was an important sphere of knowledge production about the new chemicals; knowledge which was then applied by firms and government to farming in Britain, and the control of the pests of stored products. The pesticide histories of the Britain and Africa were entangled in various ways that crossed distinctions between civilian and military, and government and business.