Nutrition Surveys and Labour in Colonial Tanzania, 1920-1950

Oswald Masebo


The interwar period, especially during the 1930s, can be depicted as the age of nutrition surveys in African colonies, including colonial Tanzania.[1] A wave of medical practitioners, biochemists, agriculturalists, anthropologists and other scientists developed unprecedented enthusiasm to study the nature and character of nutrition in the colonies.[2] Colonies such as Tanganyika, Nyasaland, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Gambia, Sierra-Leone, Gold Coast, Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, South Africa, and Botswana witnessed coordinated and uncoordinated forms of nutrition surveys. A number of institutions supported and promoted these surveys, including the League of Nations, the British Colonial Office, The Africa Institute in Nairobi, and the British Medical Council. These institutions regularly reported the progress and findings of these nutrition surveys. In 1936, for instance, the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures which had its headquarters in Nairobi devoted its journal, Africa: Journal of the International Institute of Africa, to issues of nutrition in the African colonies.[3] Nutrition surveys were not limited to the British colonies alone. The French, Portuguese, and Belgian colonies conducted these surveys as well.


The surveys were part of a large research movement to understand nutrition condition of colonial populations in Africa and in the world more generally. In 1935, the League of Nations elevated nutrition to global attention when it underlined the role of nutrition to public health and economic development. The League encouraged member states to inquire on the interface between nutrition, health, and economy and to formulate strategies for improving the welfare of the world population. Britain took this advice with interest. The British Medical Journal reported that the Prime Minister of Britain considered the possible steps that would be taken to promote the application in the colonial empire of modern knowledge in regard to nutrition. Following this consideration, the Secretary of State for Colonies sent a circular dispatch to all British colonies in April 1936 that directed colonial officials to assess nutrition-related work in their territories and to report the findings.[4]The dispatch to the colonies drew the attention of the colonial governments to the importance of the question of nutrition in relation not only to public health, but also to agricultural, veterinary, educational, and general economic policy throughout the

[1] Colonial Tanzania is used in this article to refer to the mainland part of the United Republic of Tanzania. This region was known as Tanganyika during the British colonial period (1919-1961) and during the first three years of independence (1961-1964). In 1964, Tanganyika united with Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

[2] This article was initially presented at the Professor IsariaKimambo History Seminar at the University of Dar es Salaam. I thank seminar participants for their productive comments. I also thank anonymous reviewers for their critical interventions that helped me to improve the article.

[3] See Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 9, No. 2: Problems of African Native Diet (April, 1936).

[4] “Nutrition in the Colonies: Appointment of Committee by the Prime Minister.” The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3957 (Nov. 7, 1936), p. 925.

colonial empire.[1] To concretize this directive, the Prime Minister appointed a Committee of the Economic Advisory Council to review the replies received from the colonies and to make recommendations on the action to be taken upon them. The Committee was given two terms of reference: “To survey the present state of knowledge in regard to nutrition in the Colonial Empire in the light of the replies received to the circular dispatch addressed by the Secretary of State for Colonies in April 18th, 1936 to the officers administering the Governments of Colonial Dependencies” and “To advise from time to time as to the measures calculated to promote the discovery and application of knowledge in the field.”[2]


Following the directive from the British Colonial Office, many colonial governments evaluated the nutrition-related work that had taken place in the past few years and submitted the reports. Many reports noted deficient diets in the territories. Like the British Colonial Office, the Imperial Bureau of Animal Nutrition in London took special interest in 1936 to examine colonial nutrition research in the past ten years, that is, from 1926 to 1936. The Bureau boldly characterized this decade as “a period of intense universal interest in the subject of nutrition, and during which much important research was initiated and carried through in (the) colonies.”[3] According to the Bureau, African colonies that had formal or informal dietetic surveys included Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Gambia, Gold Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, Swaziland, Tanganyika, Uganda, and Zanzibar. The connecting tissue that ran through the nutrition reports by the Colonial Office and the Imperial Bureau of Animal Nutrition was complaints on malnutrition as a critical public health challenge in the colonies during this period. Michael Worboys studied some of this research and succinctly concluded that the interwar period represented an important step in the “the discovery of colonial malnutrition.”[4] The sheer number of colonies that were formally or informally involved in the nutrition studies during the interwar period warrants an investigation on the breadth and depth of this research and on the motivations that shaped it. This article makes a modest attempt to pursue these tasks.


Thearticle examines the reasons for Britain’s intense interest in colonial nutrition in the colonies, using colonial Tanzania as a point of reference. Its proposition is that Britain perceived improvement in nutrition as a precondition for realizing the economic potentials of her colonial possessions. Britain expected to use the findings of the surveys to improve nutrition of the colonial populations that produced the labour force needed in the economic investments such as agriculture and mining. Healthy, productive, and efficient colonial African population was needed in the mining, plantation, settler, and peasant economies that produced colonial agricultural and mineral raw materials for the growing industries in Britain and other European nation states. This labour force was also needed in the construction sector (roads, railways, processing industries, ports, etc.) and in the civil service (soldiers, police, prison attendants, other civil servants). Improving the economic productivity and efficiency of colonial populations was



[3] Imperial Bureau of Animal Nutrition, Nutrition Research in the British Colonial Empire, Technical Communication No.8 (1937), p. 3.

[4] Michael Worboys, “The Discovery of Colonial Malnutrition between the Wars.” In David Arnold (ed.). Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Societies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988).

at the heart of nutrition surveys during the interwar period and after. It was a strategy for making colonies economically productive and viable.


The article relies on two types of evidence. First, it draws on the writings of scientists who conducted and published their surveys in colonial Tanzania in the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s to understand their concerns, their conclusions, and their perspectives. I have accessed raw reports on nutrition survey that Veronica Berry compiled, published, and made accessible tothe wider public.[1] These writings included contemporary anthropological publications produced during the interwar period. These publications brought a sociological approach into the study of African diets: a perspective that was lacking in typical scientific nutrition surveys of the time. The second type of evidence comes from official records that Britain’s government bodies such as the Colonial Office, the Economic Advisory Council, the Imperial Bureau of Animal Nutrition, and the colonial governments produced. These official records reveal contemporary colonial concerns about nutrition, the role of nutrition surveys in generating knowledge that could ultimately improve the nutrition of colonial populations and labour, and the role of colonies in reviving the dwindling British imperial economy through improvement of labour. The reports of the League of Nations produced in the 1930s constitute another important evidentiary basis. They reveal the interface between nutrition, health, and economic development; and therefore appealed to imperial powers such as Britain and energized them to embark on colonial nutrition surveys in Africa. Taken together, these sources reveal the desires of the British colonial officials to perceive improvement in nutrition as a necessary step in producing productive and efficient colonial labour force that would revive the shambling imperial economy.


The article is organized around five sections. The first and second sections introduce the propositions and historiographic context of the article respectively. The third section outlines the nutrition surveys that were conducted in colonial Tanzania.  The fourth section deals with the economic motives behind the nutrition surveys. It points out that surveys would generate knowledge for improving the health and productivity of the colonial labour force as a necessary step to revitalize colonial economies that the First World War and the Great Depression had frustrated. The fifth section concludes the article.

[1] Veronica Berry. The Culwick Papers 1934-1944: Population, Food and Health in Colonial Tanganyika (Pretoria: Academy Books, 1994).  


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