Primary source material reproduced from Arthur Cecil Alport, The House of Curious: The Odyssey of a Father and Son, Etc. (London, 1937), pp. 64; 71-73.
Studying medicine during the first five years of the twentieth century, white South African student Arthur Cecil Alport would have been contemporaries with the likes of H.C. Bankole-Bright, Richard Akiwande Savage and Moses da Rocha. But the only black African student mentioned by Alport in his autobiographies is his classmate “Mr Africanus Taylor.” In heavily racialised terms, Alport described Taylor thus:
“Imagine a rather squat figure, with thick lips, crinkly hair, a face as black as the ace of spades, and you have Mr. Taylor from the West Coast of Africa. Africanus was rather a pathetic character; his appearance, his colour and his race were against him […] He [ultimately] failed to take a degree, which seems a pity, as it might have been of great value in a country where the answer to the charlatanism of the witch doctor is “modern, scientific medicine.”
We catch more than a glimpse, here, of the medical school as an environment structured by race. It was also a place where colonial practices and the production of knowledge went hand in hand, or at least this is what we might deduce from one of Alport’s more bizarre anecdotes from his Edinburgh years:
Among the students who frequented the anatomy rooms was a Dutchman from the Cape, named Reubenheimer […] After failing in anatomy for the fourth or fifth time, he decided that something had to be done about is, so he went back to his father’s farm in the George district of the Cape and dug up a skeleton of a bushman. This, on his return, he presented to Sir William Turner, who was a famous oesteologist, but whose collection was incomplete as far as bushmen skeletons were concerned […] he [Reubenheimer] passed in anatomy the very next time he tried.
Why a “bushman” was buried on Reubenheimer’s father farm we can only guess; what Sir William Turner did with the skeleton, and whether the bushman’s remains are still in Edinburgh today, remains to be established. What we can state with certainty though is that while the University of Edinburgh was open to admitting African students in the twentieth century, it was simultaneously very much active in the production of knowledge useful to the colonial enterprise and supportive of such practices as stealing the remains of African people from the land in which they were buried.