Talk and Conversation

Robert Koch and the Legacy of German Colonial Science in Africa

With Edna Bonhomme and Magnus Elias Rosengarten

“Sleeping sickness” spread across Africa at the turn of the 20th Century, threatening the development of colonial projects, which depended on the strength of African labourers. This lecture explores how Robert Koch devised a “treatment” that actually caused pain and death.

Ámà: 4 Days on Caring, Repairing and Healing
  • In English; Speech-to-text

Past Dates

This lecture discusses “sleeping sickness” and the legacy of Robert Koch. Caused by microscopic parasites transmitted by the Tsetse fly, sleeping sickness appeared across Africa at the turn of the 20th Century and raised alarm among European colonial administrators who feared that its spread could slow the development of colonial projects. Robert Koch, a renowned German scientist whose name currently appears in road names throughout Germany, travelled to East Africa in 1906 to develop a cure, devising a “research camp” for inflicted East Africans, in which patients were considered dangerous and often brutally bound. He administered Atoxyl, which contained arsenic, to East Africans knowing that it caused pain, blindness and even death. The Bugula sleeping sickness research camp distributed Atoxyl to hundreds of Africans and set the standard for combating sleeping sickness in British and German African colonies, despite Europeans being aware of the substance’s harm.

Edna Bonhomme is a historian of science, interdisciplinary artist and writer. They earned a PhD in the history of science from Princeton University. Their dissertation Plagued Bodies and Spaces examined the commercial and geopolitical trajectory of epidemics in North Africa. Bonhomme has written for Al Jazeera, Esquire, The Guardian and more.

Magnus Elias Rosengarten (moderator) is a writer, artist and co-curator of Ámà: 4 Days on Caring, Repairing and Healing. He has written for ContemporaryAnd Magazine (C&), Artforum and Berlin Biennale as well as presenting work at the Kraine Theatre, New York City (2016) and the California African American Museum, Los Angeles (2018).