Peter Kanyandago – « Persistence of Colonialism and Modern Technology »

Peter Kanyandago

« Persistence of Colonialism and Modern Technology: An Anthropological Reflection from an African Perspective »

Linda Hogan, João J. Vila Chã, Michelle Becka

Concilium 2019-3. Technologie – Fluch oder Segen?
Concilium 2019-3. Technology: between Apocalypse and Integration
Concilium 2019-3. Tecnología?
Concilium 2019-3. Tecnologia: tra apocalisse e integrazione
Concilium 2019-2. Technologie: entre apocalypse et intégration
Concilium 2019-3. Tecnologia: entre o apocalipse e a integração

1. Introduction

Human beings have been able to design and produce increasingly complex tools, machines, equipment and gadgets, which in a sense, can be seen as the extension of the human mind and hands. Technology is intimately linked to science, religion, and worldview. We note that the most dominant, visible and prevalent type of technology which we will call “modern”, is a product of Western (European) experience, science and knowledge. This modern technology has benefited and borrowed from other types of technologies, and so there exist other types of technology, although this is hardly ever acknowledged.[1] To discuss why colonialism has persisted in technology, I will first show that before modern technology there was African technology. This persistence is rooted in a generalised Western anthropological and physical negation of non-Europeans other people and their achievements, justified and reinforced by the Roman Church in the 15th century. This type of technology has been associated with, and in a sense, promoted European colonisation. So while these ethical and societal challenges are wide spread, we should not give the impression that they are “universal”,  or that there are no other alternatives or are insurmountable. Our reflection includes an epistemological aspect in as far as technology is a product of science and knowledge systems. This discussion will be linked to the fact that European civilisation has been, and is, closely related to Western Christianity. I will end my contribution by suggesting that humanity will be able to solve problems coming from technology on condition that we accept to critique and very well situate modern technology, we acknowledge and use other types of technologies and that the necessary ethical and economic measures be put in place to make reparations and compensations for injustices that have been committed in the way we conceive and use technology.

2. African Technology

It is now practically established that the African continent is a cradle of humanity.[2] Modern human beings have existed on the African continent from the beginning of humanity without coming from outside. This means Africans have had time to evolve appropriate means of adjusting to and using the environment. However, there are other more precise technological African achievements that need to be mentioned. The oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt is the Great Sphinx of Gaza built between 2558 and 2532.[3] The oldest and largest pyramid in the Giza pyramid complex is the Great Pyramid of Giza, also known as the Pyramid of Khufu, said to have been constructed during the reign of king Khufu (2589-2566 BCE)

The mathematical and architectural precision of the pyramid is  a feat of human prowess and ingenuity that has to be recognised, especially if we consider that the pyramid was put up at a time when the instruments of precision known to us were not available[4].This immense technological achievement is not just a material monument: it is closely related to how ancient Egyptians viewed the life hereafter and the attention and respect they accorded the dead. Africa is also a pioneer in other scientific and technological areas, including mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy and tools, medicine, navigation, education, agriculture and textiles.[5] While many writings on the achievements of Africa in the area of science and technology focus on Egypt, and this region is better documented, Egypt must not be seen in isolation: Egypt indeed is a child of Africa.[6] Let me mention quickly that African civilisation, as a whole, is not an appendix of human history. Cheikh Anta Diop[7] and Yosef A. A. ben-Jochannan[8] have sufficiently written about this. Diop also defended and showed that ancient Egyptians were African, contrary to what many Western writers were saying.[9] If the technology alluded to has disappeared or has gone underground, there are historical and anthropological factors, external and internal, which explain this. The successive invasions BCE, followed by planned invasions, looting and colonisation of Africa by Europe in 15th century, and continued thereafter, interrupted the normal development of Africa and depleted its human and material resources, and this has continued till today, often with the collaboration of some Africans. 

3. Western Christian Roots of Colonisation and Negation

Western Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, has been associated with what Europe has done to other people, the good and the bad, including colonisation, slave trade, genocides and massacres of the people who were invaded in Asia, America and  Africa.[10]  These processes were initially started by Catholic countries, Spain and Portugal and were later joined by England and The Netherlands, and other countries later. The acts of discovery, Christianisation and colonisation, with their attendant violent doctrines and acts were justified, and in some cases started, by official papal documents called bulls.

The Three Papal Bulls

Of these bulls three need special mention in as far as they relate to discovery, colonialism and enslavement. The first of these, Dum diversas, was issued by Pope Nicholas V on 18 June 1452 in favour of king Alfonso of Portugal to fight enemies of Christ. An extract from it is given here below:

… we grant to you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and wherever established their Kingdoms, Duchies, Royal Palaces, Principalities and other dominions, lands, places, estates, camps and any other possessions, mobile and immobile goods found in all these places and held in whatever name, and held and possessed by [them]… and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude, and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal palaces, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods of this kind to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.[11]

Pope Nicholas V issued another bull, Romanus Pontifex, on 8 January 1455.[12] This bull settled the conflict between Portugal and Castile (Spain) over who had rights to colonise, take slaves and trade in Africa and along the African coast.Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter Caetera on 3 May 1493. After Columbus had “discovered” some islands and mainlands in the west, it appears Portugal had claims to the same. Pope Alexander VI, a Spaniard, was approached by the sovereigns of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, to settle the issue. Here below is an extract from the same.

…by the authority of Almighty God conferred upon us in blessed Peter and of the vicarship of Jesus Christ, which we hold on earth, do by tenor of these presents… assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered.[13]

Like in the previous 2 bulls, the justification of the donation is the conversion of pagans to the Catholic faith. This bull, and the 2 others mentioned above, are the most violent religious and political documents which laid foundation for the oppression, exploitation, enslavement and expropriation of all pagan non-Europeans, wherever they might be found and for all times. As far as I know, these bulls and many others related to them, have not yet been revoked by the supreme Catholic authority of the pope. If we take the 3 bulls together, especially the first two already mentioned, it is not only natural resources that were given, but also people found in those areas. The tenor of the bulls is universal in the intention and those targeted. We can see how the negation and suppression of non-Europeans are justified. The importance and implication of this are far-reaching. 

Aftermath of the Bulls

What is at stake here in the first place is not theology but anthropology. Europe, especially in its being Christian sees itself having the right to enslave and colonise non-Christians. Let us note again that besides the anthropological reasons, there is always an economic reason for Europe to go out and take the resources of other people because the continent was poor. Subsequent to the coming in contact between the Europeans and non-Europeans, the “Doctrine of Discovery”[14] was developed to justify what Europe, and eventually United States, had done to take countries that were not European and Christian. Referring to the papal bulls, being European coincided with being Christian and civilised. Here the anthropological and theological (religious) considerations go together. Not to be baptised excluded one from being a real a human being. About the same time, the category of “res nullus” was evolved. Nullus means “nobody” or non-existent, and res means a “thing”. The colonising powers assigned indigenous people to the category of nullus.  Originally used in Roman law, nullus meant that at the start of war, the territory is of nobody. The enemy of the Romans was a “nobody”.[15] Hindsale points out that the Catholic Church introduced a new category of nullus, namely,  a claim not by conquest but by discovery: through discovery, the “discoverer”, or more precisely the invader takes the property of nobody. Hindsale notes with concern how the Church could have been at the origin of such a doctrine justifying the spoliation and enslavement of the heathen.[16] The anthropological categories are the ones which determine the theological and ethical concepts: theology does not have a language and concepts independent of the historical and anthropological milieu in which it evolves. What I say here can also be analogically applied to the scriptures. The stage is now set to appreciate better why there is persistent colonialism in the area of how technology is conceived and used in the South. 

Persistence of Colonialism in Technology

In light of what has been summarised above, we are now in better position to discuss why a colonial mentality marked by negation of the value of what the non-European is or makes. At this level we are also dealing with an epistemological question: African knowledge, science and technology do exit, but are not duly acknowledged and used. The persistence of colonialism will be discussed under refusal to repatriate African precious cultural objects found in Western museums and the looting of African science, objects and technology, which is more than biopiracy.

Many of the  technologies and works of art of Africa were looted during the colonial period and are now in European and American museums. On 28 November 2017, Emmanuel Macron, President of France, while in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, said that efforts should be made to restitute African works of art to Africa.[17] Two people, Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, were asked to do the needful to implement this. The questions and fears raised by this work are coloured by a colonial mentality. In discussing restitution we do not hear about compensation or injustices caused to Africans: they seem to remain relegated to the category of nulli (plural of nullus). If the objects in question were unjustly taken out of Africa, returning them is not enough. There should be compensation. Secondly, the initiative to return works of art was taken by a President of a country that was involved in looting. The same country cannot justly make a proposal and offer answers. This is an indication of the colonial “we know what is better for them” mentality. Thirdly, when the report was about to be handed over, France reacted with fear that the objects on their colonial museums would be taken away. The concern is not about doing justice but about losing plundered objects. Lastly, there are some racist insinuations that Africans do not have the technology and space to receive and look after these objects. While this might be true objectively, if there was sensitivity to people who had been deprived of their works of art, one could have imagined starting a process of creating conditions for looking these objects instead of dismissing the idea on the grounds of missing technology, which evokes the idea of African being non-people.

Another example to illustrate the persistence of colonialism in African technology is the reopening of what was called the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Brussels, Belgium. This is said to be a European museum with the biggest collection of African objects. The history of this museum is marked with a violent and colonial history in regard to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from which most of the objects were taken. It has about 180,000 objects, among which are beheaded skulls of vanquished African chiefs. The museum underwent a revamp for five years at a cost of US 78 million in a bid, among other things, to shed off the colonial image, and was reopened on 9 December 2018. Some statutes have been put away in special rooms.  However, some offensive images are built in the walls, and it is said that these cannot be removed because heritage laws protect the building.[18] More recently, the San of South Africa fell victim to biopirating of the hoodia plant which they have been using for centuries to check hunger and thirst. This plant was patented by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of their government before licensing it to Phytopharm. Although through a claim the San will get a benefit from the CSIR royalties, the incident shows disregard for the knowledge and science of indigenous people.[19]

4. Solutions and Approaches to the Problem

After exposing some challenges and issues above, I would like now to present the following as solutions and approaches to dealing with what can be done to remove the persistence of colonialism in the way the West deals with non-Europeans in general, and from African technology in particular. The most general concern is anthropological since colonialism is grounded in how we conceive our relations to other people and nature. The full humanity and dignity of the African is not yet recognised. There are still racist ideologies and practices against the African in the Americas, Europe and even Russia. Legal, political and theological provisions can make a contribution, provided the victimiser does not dictate the undertaking. More initiatives should be taken by Africans, especially in the international fora, to promote respect for the African people. I am aware that this is not very simple because Africans themselves do contribute to their own humiliation and dehumanisation. Organisations and occasions which create occasions for African and Europeans to meet and interact as equals should be created or reinforced.

Education is an important tool in eliminating colonial mentalities. In this respect, academic programmes in the West and Africa need to be reviewed to eliminate traits discriminative ideologies and practices. The courses in science and history should be reviewed to include African science and technology.  In the same vein, the epistemological question should be addressed to show that Africa has contributed and is contributing to the world scientific and technological patrimony.

On the theological level, the Church has a lot to do to rehabilitate its image with regard to how evangelisation promoted colonisation and dehumanisation of the African. There is need to use the same papal authority to revoke the bulls that justified and promoted colonisation and enslavement of the non-European people. Similarly, the Church’s practices and teaching which are marked by Western universalising tendencies wrongly taken to be the teaching of the Church should be eliminated. 


[1]On this see Sandra Braman, “Technology and Epistemology: Information Policy and Desire”, in G. Bolin, Ed., Cultural Technologies in Cultures of Technology: Culture as Means and Ends in a Technologically Advanced Media World, New York: Routledge, 2012, pp. 133-150.

[2] On this see, for example, Serena Tucci and Joshua M. Akey, “Population Genetics: A Map of Human Wanderlust,” Nature, 538 no. 7624 (2016): 178-179


[4] See

[5] For examples of presentation on this see, with ample references, Wikipedia, History of science and technology in Africa,

[6]Ivan Van Sertima uses this title in the book, Egypt: Child of Africa, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2005. What was done and achieved in Egypt should be seen as African because of the influence of other African people, especially from along the Nile, on Egypt. 

[7]On this see Cheikh Anta Diop. Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology. New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991 and The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, New York: Lawrence Hill, 1974. 

[8]See Yosef A. A. ben-Jochannan, Africa: Mother of Western Civlisation, Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1988.

[9]See UNESCO, “Annex to Chapter 1: Report of the Symposium on ‘The Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of the Meroitic Script’”, in G. Mokhtar, ed., General History of Africa, Vol. II, Ancient Civilisations of Africa, Berkeley: UNESCO, 1981, pp. 58-83.

[10]On the genocide of the Aboriginals in the Australian sub-region, one can find sufficient bibliography in “Colonial Genocides Project”, on, on the massacres in the Americas, see David E. Stannard, The American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World: New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, and on the massacres in the then Belgian Congo, see Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999 and of the Herero in Namibia, Reinhart Kössler and Henning Melber, The genocide in Namibia (1904-08) and its consequences in Pambazuka News,, 20 March 2012.

[11] The English text of Dum diversas is taken from, 5 February 2011

[12]See Francis Gardiner Davenport  (ed.), European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648, Washington, D. C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1917, p.  9.

[13]Ibid., p. 56. 

[14] One of the best presentations on this is by B.A. Hindsale, “The Right of Discovery”, in Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly”, 2/3 (1888) pp. 349-379.

[15]For a more detailed discussion on res nullus see Hindsale, ibid., pp. 364-365. 

[16] Ibid., p. 365.

[17]See Le Point, Un rapport sur la restitution d’oeuvres d’art à l’Afrique remis à Emmanuel Macron, 23 November 2018.

[18]See Alex Marshall, Belgium’s Africa Museum Had a Racist Image. Can It Change That?, The New York Times, 8 December 2018.  

[19]On this see Gavin Stenton, “Biopiracy within Pharmaceutical Industry: A Stark Illustration of Just How Abusive, Manipulative and Perverse the Patenting Can Be towards Countries of the South”, in Hertfordshire Law Journal 1/2  (2003), p. 33.) For more examples see, Jay McGown, Out of Africa: Mysteries of Access and Benefit Sharing, Washington: Edmonds Institute, 2006. See also Peter Kanyandago, “Ecological and Ethical Implications of Pirating the Resources of Africa,” Concilium 51 no. 3 (2015): 89-95.


Peter Kanyandago is a priest from the Archdiocese of Mbarara, Uganda. He has worked in different capacities in Uganda Martyrs University from 1994-2016. He was Director of the project that led to the founding of the University of Saint Joseph Mbarara (USJM), the first private diocesan university in Uganda. He has researched into and published widely in theology, African and Development Studies.

Address: Uganda Martyrs University, P. O. Box 5498, Kampala, Uganda.

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