Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 148-149
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Disease and Empire: The Health of European Troops in the Conquest of Africa
Disease and Empire: The Health of European Troops in the Conquest of Africa. By Philip D. Curtin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xii + 256. $64.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
Philip D. Curtin began as a historian of the British empire, of which there were many, then moved on to become a historian of Africa, of which there were few, and then, on top of that, added the awesome specialty of world history. He has sought on all these levels to learn what actually happened (an old-fashioned but durably admirable approach). I do not mean the tired stories of elites, but the story of larger categories. His Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969) is an outstanding example of this. It has not been accepted as the final word on that subject, which is both imperfectly documented and controversial, but remains the best overall study on it and the base line from which all debates about it must begin.
His new interest in the slave trade, a transnational and transcontinental subject, led Curtin to write one of my favorites among his books, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990). That subject, usually presented in fragments as the plantation histories of the British empire, the French empire, the Dutch empire, of Virginia, of Georgia, of Cuba, of Queensland, he presented as a transtropical and global phenomenon.
Curtin is fascinated with "the big picture," a category often and infamously celebrated in the big books advertised in the magazine sections of the Sunday newspaper. He considers examination of global history as the special responsibility of us professional historians. If we do not take up that task, we leave it to the incompletely informed and often supremely confident journalists. But how should we--how can we!--grapple with the problem of the immensity of world history?
In Cross-Cultural Trade in World History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), Curtin finessed that problem and simultaneously snatched from obscurity vitally significant peoples by focusing on the connections between the world's parts--that is to say, on commerce as practiced by the first experts on multiculturalism, the ethnic minority merchants.
Curtin's fascination with the African diaspora, with the big picture, and with connections has led him to devote a good deal of his attention to an examination of the health aspects of European imperialism in the tropics. How successful were peoples from one disease environment--Europe, Africa, the West Indies--at staying alive in the disease environments of others? In Death by Migration (Cambridge: [End Page 148] Cambridge University Press, 1989), he informed us that disease was one of the central themes in the course of European empires, that historians must consider the medical and sanitary progress of the imperialists with as much attention as naval historians do changes in navigational technique and ship design.
This latest book is a spin-off of Death by Migration. In this one, Disease and Empire, he examines the role of disease in the story of Europe's rush to conquest in Africa in the final decades of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century. The book is not totally comprehensive. It tells us about the British and French invasions of continental Africa and Madagascar, including a good deal about the Boer War, but says nothing of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1890s. No matter: it is common courtesy that Curtin should leave something for somebody else to write about.
Many of us (me, for instance) think we already know a good deal about the medical side of the conquest of the interior of Africa. We know, for example, that the invasions had to wait for European science to provide the means to protect white soldiers. We know that the problem was the mosquito-borne fevers...