Collecting Blood, Flies, and Ideas: David and Mary Bruce, the game-nagana link, and the role of Zulu Knowledge, c. 1890s-1920s

Activity: Talk or presentation typesPresentation


In the 1890s, the British sought to open the Colony of Zululand to European settlement. The country, characterised by abundant green pastures, was a paradise for cattle, but had been plagued by a livestock disease that the Zulu called uNakane (Anglicised as nagana). Its cause, Zulu farmers argued, was the presence of legally-protected big-game, yet settlers in the region insisted that it was the ‘tsetse fly disease’. David Bruce, a Scottish surgeon-major who worked closely with his wife, Mary Bruce, was commissioned to investigate. From 1893-1902, the couple collected local theories within the Mkuzi Game Reserve and tested these in their field-laboratory atop the Lebombo Mountain Range. Their influential series of reports would provide the bacteriological foundations for studying nagana and stimulate a thirty-year controversy into the “game-nagana link”– whether big-game were the source of the disease, and whether exterminating them would eradicate nagana. In 1920, this culminated in a field-experiment dubbed “The Great Game Drive”, in which two-thousand settlers and six-hundred Zulu attempted to exterminate all wildlife south of the White Umfolozi River. This ‘experiment’ and its reception shaped nagana science in Zululand and entangled the fate of the fauna in a web of class and race conflicts.
The fieldwork and reception of David and Mary Bruce, as well as their unnamed Zulu informants, provides a valuable case study in showing the African origins of nagana research, and how such origins were subsequently obscured and forgotten. Although the Bruces were candid in acknowledging a “native theory”, in the game-nagana debates, animal-conservationists constructed ‘Zulu knowledge’ as a form of ‘African primitivity’, and the antithesis of science.
Period7 Jul 201912 Jul 2019
Event titleMeeting of the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology
Event typeConference
LocationOslo, NorwayShow on map