The African country currently known as Zimbabwe was for many years known as Southern Rhodesia, and then later as the Republic of Rhodesia after its unilateral declaration of independence in 1965. Its head of government at this time was a Briton called Ian Smith who led a government based on the minority white population, and the country was known as the breadbasket of Africa because of its strong agriculture-based economy.
Since 1980 the country has been run by the African Marxist Robert Mugabe. Unemployment stands at around seventy percent, and around half of its population are dependent upon western food aid.
Zimbabwe is named after the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe. When colonial rule was established in this part of Africa in the nineteenth century, there was an unwillingness to concede that so impressive a structure could have been the work of Africans, and so it was argued that it was built by a dynasty of non-black rulers. It was even suggested that it might be the court of the Queen of Sheba who famously visited King Solomon.
Archaeological work carried out in the twentieth century found copious amounts of Bantu artefacts (mainly pottery) at Great Zimbabwe, but nothing at all to suggest that it was ever even visited by non-Africans. It was therefore deemed to have been built by Africans. This did not please Ian Smith, however, and during his premiership all official tourist literature about Great Zimbabwe asserted that it was built by non-blacks.
Impressive it may be, but Great Zimbabwe is impressive only by the standards of sub-Saharan Africa. It does not compare with the architecture that was being produced in Europe at the same time. Whether we look at it in terms of engineering or aesthetics, European architecture wins hands down.
I have recently discovered a website about black inventors, which lists about sixty or seventy people whom it considers to be worthy of mention. So what does it tell us about black people?
First of all, we are entitled to ask to what extent the people listed deserve to be called inventors. For example, it lists a woman called Sarah Boone as having invented the ironing board, for which she received a patent in 1892. However according to Wikipedia, “a truly portable folding ironing board was first patented in Canada in 1875 by John B. Porter”, which makes me wonder if Sarah Boone actually invented anything. Also, the ironing board is not a great invention. Although useful, it did not involve any new technology, and did not allow people to do anything they could not do already.
Likewise, the site claims that a man called Matthew Cherry patented a velocipede – a fore-runner to the bicycle – in 1888, but the velocipede was invented in France seventy years earlier, and a primitive form of bicycle existed as early as the 1860s. Benjamin Banneker designed and built the first clock to be produced in the USA. He was without doubt a very intelligent and resourceful man, and yet I am not sure that he ever actually invented anything.
Another question we are entitled to ask is to what extent these people can be termed black. Charles Drew was without doubt a great scientist, but I am not sure if he can really be called a great black scientist. The USA was racially segregated in his lifetime, and he was classed as black, but his skin was in fact very pale. At a glance he appears white, although on closer inspection he could be construed as North African. I am not sure of his ethnicity, but people in north Africa are not black. They are racially closer to Europeans than they are to the blacks of sub-Saharan Africa.
So far as I can make out, the site gives the ethnicity of just one person, being Benjamin Banneker. Three of his grandparents were black, but one was English, and so we cannot rule out the possibility that his intellect was a European rather than an African trait. I accept that at least some of the people listed on this site were black people of great intellect – Patricia Bath and George Washington Carver for example – but all the same I do not think that this site is a particularly good advertisement for black intellect.
If you were to compile a list of sixty or seventy white inventors, then I suspect that you could probably do so quite easily, and without resorting to including someone who may or may not have invented the ironing board.
Look around your home. It is probably full of things that were invented by white people – computer (Charles Babbage), television (John Logie Baird), telephone (Alexander Graham Bell), electric lighting (Thomas Edison), taps (a firm of brass founders in Rotherham), anything made from either stainless steel (Leon Guillet) or aluminium (Charles Martin Hall), and so on ... And what do you have in your home that was invented by a black man? Peanut butter perhaps – anything else?
I have not looked at every one of the people listed on the black inventors site, but I do get the impression that not one of them lived in Africa. So far as I can make out, they all lived in North America.
This leads me to conclude that genius is a matter of race but also to some extent a matter of culture. Indian children outperform children from Bangladesh and Pakistan in British schools – by a long chalk.
This is unlikely to be a matter of race, because Pakistan and Bangladesh were both part of India within living memory. It is far more likely to be a matter of culture, and may be related to Islam (the majority religion in Pakistan and Bangladesh). It might also be related to in-breeding, which is common in Pakistan.
Can anyone think of an example of a great inventor who was black and who lived in sub-Saharan Africa? I can’t. I expect there might be a few examples, but I don’t suppose there are many. The fact that all or nearly all of the great black inventors appear to have lived in North America suggests that black people can achieve great things when they live among white people. Race probably has the edge over culture, but it may not be very much of an edge.