restricted access Disease and Empire: The Health of European Troops in the Conquest of Africa (review)
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Disease and Empire: The Health of European Troops in the Conquest of Africa. By Philip D. Curtin (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1997) 256 pp. $64.95 cloth $19.95 paper

Curtin’s latest work continues his long-standing commitment to broad, comparative, and quantitative history. It provides further evidence that these fields, no longer enjoying the popularity that they once did, still yield valuable findings. Curtin’s main task is to analyze the relationship among advances in late nineteenth-century medical knowledge in Europe, the health of European troops overseas, and the conquest of Africa. He commences with an intriguing question—one with the potential to overturn existing historiography. Did the European military conquest and political partition of Africa become possible, and even a dominant passion, only because European researchers had solved the health problems of soldiering and living in Africa? If so, then the traditional theories for explaining late nineteenth-century imperialism, as set out in the works of Hobson, Lenin, Robinson and Gallagher, et al. would need revising; these studies had little to say about the relevance of advances in medical knowledge in explaining Europe’s expansion into Africa. 1

Curtin’s discussion of the military campaigns leading up to African partition suggests that his hunch is right. In the British expedition against Ethiopia in 1867/68 and the British march against the Asante capital at Kumasi in 1873/74, army losses from disease were surprisingly light. Not a few medical and military observers at the time concluded that European troops could, indeed, fight and survive on African soil. In truth, however, the low death rates among the forces owed more to good luck than the application of a new medical understanding.

When Curtin turns his attention to the campaigns of conquest in Africa between 1880 and 1900, he makes a series of telling observations. The loss of life during the campaigns was substantial, mainly the result of diseases rampaging through the armies of conquest. Many deaths would have been prevented had the Europeans applied the knowledge about the primary lethal diseases that they already possessed. But the losses in Africa did not deter commanders and politicians from pressing forward in their conquest of the continent, so eager were they for [End Page 368] political glory and so little was the opposition in Europe to the great loss of life. Thus, Curtin’s first hunch—that Europe conquered African peoples only after the Europeans had perfected the techniques for protecting the health of soldiers and administrators—stands on it head. The Europeans pressed ahead with their military ambitions in such a hurry that they failed even to apply knowledge and techniques that medical officers knew would save lives.

In the campaigns in West Africa, the loss of European lives was minuscule because the armies were so small. Not surprisingly, it was barely noticed in Europe. In reality, the mortality rates from disease were many times those in Europe and greater than those experienced by European troops living in barracks in India and occupied parts of Africa. Not so easily ignored, however, were the losses sustained where large contingents of European forces had to fight. Against the Egyptian army in 1882, the Mahdist forces in the Sudan between 1896 and 1898, the Imerina kingdom of Madagascar in 1895, and the Boers of South Africa in the Anglo-Boer war at the turn of the century—all of which involved European armies numbering in the thousands rather than the hundreds—British and French forces died at appallingly high rates. Africa was still the white man’s graveyard; except in Egypt, deaths from disease greatly outnumbered casualties on the battlefield. The slayers were malaria and typhoid, both of which could have been prevented if commanders and soldiers had heeded the advice of medical officers and not pressed ahead with the conquest at breakneck speed.

Military historians and historians of Africa will not think the same way about African conquest after reading this work. The battlefield figures, overwhelmingly in favor of the European forces and the ones most frequently cited when describing the conquest, do not tell the whole story. The loss of European life was...