Decolonising science

Martin Vlietstra, an occasional contributor to Metric Views, considers Britain’s policy of retaining, for as long as it could, the use of imperial measurements in its Empire. He notes that the consequences continue to this day.

In the past year calls have gone out to “decolonise” education, including maths and science.  In respect of the STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, the University of Oxford has responded by setting up a project investigate how this can be done.  The description of the Oxford project suggests that little can be done about the actual technical content of the STEM subjects, though a certain amount can be done about teaching the context in which the technical content evolved.

Very few people in the United Kingdom appreciate that the colonies (See Note 1) saw the imperial system of units as a barrier to greater self-reliance. In the years leading up to the Boer War, the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal or the ZAR) employed large numbers of civil servants from the Netherlands rather than recruiting officials from the Cape Colony or from the United Kingdom. When the ZAR introduced its own coinage in 1892, there was a strong feeling in the Volksraad (ZAR Parliament) that the ZAR should have a decimal currency, presumably based on the Dutch guilder. However the strength of the commercial ties with the Cape Colony militated against this and the ZAR currency mirrored the British currency. The ZAR policy on railways was however different. Although the railways in the ZAR had a 3’6” (1.067 m) as did the neighbouring British colonies, their distance markers were in kilometres.  As an aside, the railways of British East Africa adopted a one metre gauge, but distance markers were calibrated in miles as was done in India.

Edward VII was crowned on 9 August 1902, two and a half months after the end of the Boer War. The British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, used the occasion to call a Colonial Conference which was attended by the prime ministers of all the self-governing colonies. Although the aftermath of the Boer War featured high on the agenda, trade and other matters were discussed and in particular the conference passed the motion “That it is advisable to adopt the metric system of weights and measures for use within the Empire and the Prime Ministers [of the colonies] urge the Governments represented at the Conference to give consideration to the question of its early adoption”.  On 9 September, a month after the end of the conference, Chamberlain sent a letter to all the governors of the various colonies to get their views.  In the responses, the Seychelles and Mauritius said that they already used the metric system, a number of large colonies including Australia, New Zealand and most of the African colonies were in favour of adoption while a number of the smaller colonies said that they would follow Australia, India or the United States (as appropriate) while only a few small colonies were opposed to adopting the metric system. Canada did not commit itself while India was not included in the survey. The result was the 1907 metrication bill in the British Parliament. The bill was eventually defeated by 150 votes to 118 with one of the reasons for the defeat being the desire of British industry to “lock-in” existing customers.

Following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the government of India passed from the East India Company to the British Crown. Queen Victoria formally became known as Empress of India in 1877 and was represented in India by a viceroy. Until independence in 1948, India was not legally a British Colony, but a separate realm. This is probably the reason why India was not included in Chamberlain’s request for views on metrication. In practice India was controlled by British-born administrators who worked alongside the Indian princes and maharajas.  At the time of the mutiny, the various Indian provinces had a variety of units of measure, often going by the same name but representing different quantities. During the period of British administration attempts were made to standardise the units of measure across all India by retaining the Indian names of the units where possible, but rounding them to appropriate Imperial measures. This policy never succeeded. In 1885 the Indian National Congress (INC) was founded having, as its main aim, independence for India. From about 1930 onwards, the INC also tackled the problem of units of measure and supported the adoption of the metric system. They did not have the support of Gandhi who feared that decimalisation of the currency and metrication of units of measure would be used to the detriment of the poor. However in 1956 India, realising that a substantial portion of her trade was with metric countries adopted a decimal currency and in 1958 she adopted the metric system. One of the staunch supporters of metrication was Nehru who reminded people that the system of numbers as we know them as opposed to Roman numerals originated in India by saying “we are not adopting something alien to India. We are going back to something which was originally the product of Indian genius”  

In 1965 the United Kingdom announced its intention to adopt the metric system. Within a few years the rest of the Commonwealth announced plans to follow. Each country made the choice to change over to metric units independently of other countries, and each had their own timetable – for example one of the first areas for metrication in Australia was horse racing (one furlong being about 200 metres). Apart from the United Kingdom and to a lesser extent Canada, most of the Commonwealth had adopted the metric system by 1980.

In his delightful series of books, the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith missed a trick.  The series is set in Botswana where McCall Smith worked for in the early 1990’s.   The main character in the book is Mma Precious Ramotswe who not only solves many mysteries, but also philosophises about many aspects of Botswana life including Aids in Sub-Saharan Africa, the rural way of life in Botswana, social relations, marital infidelity and how Botswana has changed over the years. Even though the books are set in the 1990’s and Mma Ramotswe might well have remembered the conversion to metric units in her childhood, she never breaks the 30mph speed limit and has never been known to talk about Botswana’s adoption of the metric system in the early 1970’s, a few years after its independence in 1966. In my two visits to Botswana in 1976 and 1977 all the road signs that I saw were in kilometres or kilometres per hour.

What has this to do with decolonising education? Most of British education uses the metric system but outside the school environment there are many activities where the imperial system is used, particularly in matters that affect only the man in the street. These include the use of stones and pounds for people’s weights where the medical professionals use metric units, the use of miles and miles per hour on the roads where the road professionals use metres and kilometres per hour and the sale of dual-unit measuring devices. The result is that the teaching in the classroom is not reinforced by experience outside the classroom with the long-term result of decreasing numeracy, especially amongst the less-able children.


  1. In the context of this article, the word “colony”, without prejudice to any legal implication, includes any area over which Britain had jurisdiction or influence since 1800, thus excluding the United States, but including Ireland, the Boer Republics and India.


Author: UK Metric Association

For a single, rational system of measurement

3 thoughts on “Decolonising science”

  1. What seems to be a problem no one seems to understand as a problem is that when the people on the street don’t understand all aspects of their life in metric units, then they become less qualified as engineers and/or workers involved in manufacturing where measuring and understanding measured values is important. If you can’t visualise your height in metres, you can’t visualise the dimensions of a manufactured product in metres either. These people won’t be able to notice a mistake that may have occurred or may create a mistake due to measurement confusion. This can result in a loss of life, property and profit.

    This is why it has always been important that one system and one standard be used across the land.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s