Colonial Ideology and the 'Science' of Medicine


Pramod K. Nayar

University of Hyderabad, India

Copyright © 2002 by Pramod K. Nayar, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Bewell, Alan. Romanticism and Colonial Disease. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 373 pages; $ 45.00 Hardcover.

  1. Race, class, gender and, more recently, geography and cartography, have constituted the major categories of analysis in contemporary discussions of colonialism. Alfred Crosby, David Arnold, Ramachandra Guha, Madhav Gadgil and Richard Grove, for example, have incorporated environment and ecology as categories in their readings of colonial discourse. Disease and medical topography is the newest entrant into the field, as David Arnold, Mark Harrison, Waltraud Ernst and others have unraveled the close links between colonial ideology and the apparently "objective" science of medicine. Alan Bewell's Romanticism and Colonial Disease, in this same lineage, focuses on British "cultural response to colonial disease" and the processes through which British medical and literary writers negotiated the newly emergent biomedical identities (12). Drawing upon Sander Gilman's argument that disease representations are dialectical, and Mary Louise Pratt's now-famous concept of "contact zones," Bewell suggests that "British people's conceptions of their own biomedical identity were formulated within a global context, as part of their own response to the experience of colonial disease" (19). Bewell argues that the geographical "tropics" -- cast as "disease landscapes" -- were intrinsic to the formulation of a Western biomedical identity. The British emphasis on discipline and "temperance" (a theme in travel writers as early as Sir Thomas Roe -- in India between 1616 and 1619) when "read within the context of colonial epidemiology . . . may be less the expression of an intrinsic national moral outlook than a reflection of epidemiological anxiety" (26), as Bewell demonstrates.

  2. In his early chapter, "Romantic Medical Geography," Bewell surveys the prevalent theories of disease that circulated in Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Bewell demonstrates how disease was conceptualized in geographical terms, "a problem of places more than of people" (34). With this geographication of disease, Bewell argues, a powerful ideological tool was made available to European expansionist programs. It enabled the expansionists to generate a strong deixis -- national versus foreign -- entirely in terms of healthy (England/Europe) versus diseased/unhealthy (colony). The pathologizing of the globe suggested immanent racial-biological susceptibilities (and therefore, identities) that differentiated "healthy" colonizers from "diseased" colonized. Further, these disease landscapes were "hybrid" because they "upset the stability of colonial disease geography by questioning and displacing European epidemiological certainties and securities" (48). Colonial lands were also the causes for new "readings" of disease itself, and the colonial experience provoked English writers to rethink their own theories of disease and the health of their own landscape. Finally, colonialism defined itself as the means by which "unimproved peoples, living in unimproved lands, could gain control over their diseased environments" (42). Part of the famous "white man's burden," then, was to help native people conquer their diseases with the white man's medicine -- the latter itself being the result of Western theories of disease.

  3. Bewell suggests that colonial military disease narratives can point to a historical reality: the return of several Englishmen from colonies, in varying states of illness and decrepitude. Bewell points out that the literature of the 1790s is full of bereaved mothers, soldiers fallen on hard times, abandoned wives, homeless sailors and maimed servicemen. Reading texts from Smollett's Roderick Random through the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Bewell maintains that these poets were reacting to the "epidemiological cost of colonization" (83, 101). Bewell argues that colonialism served two purposes: it contributed to the expansion of empire and "cleansed" the commonwealth of the poor and the vagrants (by sending these latter to colonies) -- an argument demonstrated as early as the 1570s in texts like the senior Richard Hakluyt's "Discourse on Western Planting." In a series of brilliant readings of works like Wordsworth's Salisbury Plain poems and "The Discharged Soldier", and Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner, Bewell situates these "imaginative" poems in the context of "actual" colonial military and medical narratives to explore the close links between the two forms. Supported by an impressive array of statistics (about the deaths of British personnel in colonies), the visual arts (including discussions of James Gillray, William Hogarth), travel writings (James Cook, Charles Darwin), and medical tracts (James Lind, Adam Burt), Bewell suggests that poets like Wordsworth articulate a central feature of colonialism: that those who played an important role in the military and economic expansion of Britain were themselves treated as less than human, that "those who colonized were not immune to othering" when "the pathologies associated with tropical regions were transmitted to them too, not only in biological but in symbolic terms" (128).

  4. Food and diet played an important role in the cultural politics of the colonial. Dietary disparities were used for nationalistic propaganda, and medically theorized links between food habits and disease/health were frequently yoked to racial and cultural identity politics. Local diets and local peoples, the vulnerability of European constitutions to strange climates and food, and the dangers of a luxurious diet constitute central themes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts like De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, as Bewell demonstrates. Keats found medical topography and colonial climatography useful for developing a "sociology and geography of human temperaments" (161-2). Bewell explores several of the images in Keats' Hyperion, "To Autumn" and Endymion in terms of their healthy and diseased geographies that appear to conflate with cultural and psychological "states." Concluding with a reading of Keats' consumption and the contemporary responses to this, Bewell demonstrates that an "archetype of the English Romantic consumptive poet was built on a complex and unstable negotiation of a range of ideas about the geography and gender of disease" (193). Moving on to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Bewell argues that Shelley's climatography and geography were undergirded by a "medicalizing of social life" (209), and that Shelley, following his period's notions of disease, saw places and not people as "sick". Further, Shelley links power with pestilence and "refuses to separate ideopathology from the analysis of power" (209). Bewell demonstrates how Shelley imaged resistance to and confrontation with oppressive power in terms of fighting disease in Queen Mab (which Bewell describes as a "biosocial utopia", 211), Mont Blanc, and The Triumph of Life.

  5. In his chapter on colonial representations of India in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Bewell looks at the British negotiation of cholera. Via a reading of articles in medical journals like the Lancet and the several medical topographies/histories, he argues that the spread of cholera, in essence, marked the extent of empire. Linking these narratives and representations with the poetry of Thomas Moore and Coleridge, Bewell demonstrates how India's disease landscape provided a lens through which the British saw themselves. Bewell then explores prevalent notions of "tropical invalidism" in Thomas Medwin, Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre) and medical texts of the period as reflecting anxieties about the feasibility of empire itself. In Thomas Medwin's Angler in Wales, for instance, Bewell locates two related themes: (a) the tropical invalid as questioning the European's ability to rule the world; and (b) the return of these invalids to England as posing a new set of problems to English doctors. Bewell concludes with a reading of Mary Shelley's The Last Man as a novel that thematizes the decline and fall of the British Empire in terms of disease. Bewell argues that Mary Shelley in her examination of the "limits of the social control of disease" (312), is actually interrogating "the assumption that technology and science guarantee the continuance of Western social life" (312).

  6. Bewell's excellent work is a valuable contribution to studies both of British Romanticism and of colonialism. With a keen "historical sense," Bewell draws together diverse texts from the period in his reading of colonial disease topography. By demonstrating the "construction" of disease landscapes Bewell underscores the power of colonial discourse in carving and reinforcing identities. However, Bewell's attention to actual records of disease and suffering among English soldiers prevents him from suggesting that these identities are merely discursive constructs. Negotiating between readings of colonialism as either essentially "discursive" or "material," Bewell's work shows how the two interpenetrate. Literary and non-literary texts anastomose in a manner whereby "original" and "derivative" cease to be relevant terms. Bewell's focus on disease as a potential -- real or imagined -- threat to the very solidity -- again, real or imagined -- of English character (in terms of its ability to conquer, rule and survive) is interesting and reminds one of John Barrell's sterling work on De Quincey's "infections," Felicity Nussbaum's reading of "torrid zones" in European texts, and Nigel Leask's on the "anxieties" of Empire. Romanticism and Colonial Disease is definitely an achievement.

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