EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Changing the narrative: the hidden histories of British colonial mineral exploitation in Africa

Dr Munira Raji1,2, Dr Rebecca Williams1, Dr Anya Lawrence1, Dr Nicholas Evans1, Professor Trevor Burnard1, Dr M. Satish Kumar4, Keely Mills5, Steven Rogers9, Catharine Souch6, George Jameson7, Jacqui Houghton8, and Natasha Dowey3
Dr Munira Raji et al.
  • 1University of Hull
  • 2University of Plymouth
  • 3Sheffield Hallam University
  • 4Queen's University of Belfast
  • 5British Geological Survey
  • 6Royal Geographysical Society
  • 7Geological Society of London
  • 8University of Leeds
  • 9Keele University

At the height of colonial Europe, during the late 18th century, many of the principles, theories, laws and practices that shape the (Western) academic discipline of Earth Science were established. However, during this imperial production of knowledge, there was little reference to or acknowledgement of any pre-existing geological knowledge. The legacy of colonialism is perpetuated through many modern Earth Science practices and education activities, and the influence of this legacy adds to the perception of Earth Science as a white, western-dominated subject and the erasure and dismissal of other geological knowledge. This project explores the unacknowledged local geological knowledge and labour upon which the foundational institutions of Earth Science are built and how this legacy creates modern-day exploitation, unethical behaviour and inequity in our discipline. 


We uncover some of the hidden histories of colonial mineral exploitation, including the role of British geologists and geological institutions in expanding colonial rule in Africa and how local geological knowledge and local guides underpinned the activities of the colonial geological surveys. British mineral exploitation in Africa started in the seventeenth century with a series of expeditions by pioneer British geologists and prospectors into South Africa's interior to make preliminary observations and geological surveys for minerals. More expeditions to other parts of Africa followed in the eighteenth century. During the late eighteenth century, many of the principles, theories, laws and practices that shaped the academic discipline of Earth Science were established in parallel to colonial expansion. The British Empire sustained a programme of exploratory geological surveys and activities directly linked with mapping the geological features to locate and discover economic mineral resources to fuel the British economy and industrialise the British Empire. Exploitable deposits of coal, copper, iron and limestone's essential smelting flux were vital for the long-term development of steamship lines, railways, and industry. 


At the end of the First World War, the British government promoted and intensified geological surveys in several British Empire territories – Uganda, Sierra Leone and Nigeria in 1918, Tanzania in 1925 and Kenya in 1933. Some pioneer British geologists were heralded for their pioneering work and credited with the discovery of economically significant minerals in Africa. Our archival investigation reveals many of these mineral resources were already used and mined locally and that local knowledge underpinned these resource 'discoveries' and local people were used as field assistants, guides, carriers, labourers, and camp guides. These pioneer geologists relied on the colonial structure to obtain information from natives central to fieldwork, mineral investigation, and discoveries. Still, history has omitted the contributions of the natives involved in these mineral discoveries and the acknowledgement of any local geological knowledge. Perhaps it is time to change the narrative from one of discovery to one of exploitation. As a discipline, by reckoning with the colonial legacy of our past, we can seek to normalise working with local knowledge and knowledge outside the boundaries of (western) Earth Science, leading to ethical,  equitable, interdisciplinary work, better preparing the discipline for current global challenges.

How to cite: Raji, D. M., Williams, D. R., Lawrence, D. A., Evans, D. N., Burnard, P. T., Kumar, D. M. S., Mills, K., Rogers, S., Souch, C., Jameson, G., Houghton, J., and Dowey, N.: Changing the narrative: the hidden histories of British colonial mineral exploitation in Africa, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-15959,, 2023.