Seeing the Copperbelt: Science, mining and colonial power in Northern Rhodesia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

451 Downloads (Pure)


This article explores the relationship between science and the extension of colonial power through an examination of the rise of the Northern Rhodesian (later, Zambian) Copperbelt in the 1930s. The rise of the Copperbelt rested in part on scientific prospecting operations perhaps unparalleled in size and scope in the world at the time. These operations brought new 'scientific' prospecting techniques to the area which enabled the Northern Rhodesian subsurface to be 'seen' in new ways. The seemingly universal and fixed knowledge scientists produced served both political and commercial aims, animating the 'civilising' project of imperial power and transforming a newly acquired territory into a profitable annex to empire. Two prospecting operations are explored in detail: (1) the first large concession floated as the Rhodesian Congo Border Concession and (2) the first attempt to use geological science to generate a complete geological map of mineral resources on the Copperbelt in the Nkana Concession. Examining the efforts of these two prospecting operations reveals the methodological, theoretical and epistemological challenges of producing a viable mineral investment and practicing science in the periphery. Finally, the disconnects between the logics and goals of science and those of colonial extraction in Africa are explored. Here it is argued that it was the very malleability of the knowledge produced by European scientists, rather than its abstract fixity or placeless universality, that enabled it to become part of wider political and economic flows. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)271-281
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2013


  • Colonialism
  • Mining
  • Political ecology
  • Power
  • Science
  • Zambia

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Global Development Institute


Dive into the research topics of 'Seeing the Copperbelt: Science, mining and colonial power in Northern Rhodesia'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this