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  • Curing the Colonizers: Hydrotherapy, Climatology, and French Colonial Spas
  • Dane Kennedy
Curing the Colonizers: Hydrotherapy, Climatology, and French Colonial Spas. By Eric T. Jennings. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006.

Among the most lasting if curious monuments to the European colonial presence in various parts of the globe are those hill stations, seaside spas, and other enclaves that catered to the health and welfare of the expatriate community. Many of them have now morphed into popular resorts for their own nations’ citizens, but in the colonial era they kept indigenous peoples at a distance and built their reputations as refuges from the disease and other dangers that the colonizers attributed to these alien lands. Wherever Europeans ruled densely populated territories in hot climates, they sought respite from their duties and recovery from their ills in these specialized retreats.

French colonial spas are the subject of Eric Jennings’ fascinating study, which focuses on Guadeloupe, Reunion, Madagascar, and Tunisia, as well as the famous metropolitan spa at Vichy. This rich array of examples allows Jennings to highlight how local conditions and peoples influenced the character of individual spas even as he demonstrates that all were shaped in common by French conceptions of health and hygiene in the colonial tropics as well as by European-wide discourses about race and degeneration. The result is a nuanced, insightful examination of the ideological premises and cultural practices that informed French colonialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Jennings’ opening chapter establishes the essential context within which colonial spas and similar retreats acquired their rationale-the debate about whether Europeans could acclimatize to those unfamiliar and often uncomfortable environments that came to be called the tropics. While acknowledging that this debate was a complex and convoluted one, Jennings notes that whereas most eighteenth-century European commentators considered acclimatization through “seasoning” attainable and desirable, countenancing creolization as its outcome, their nineteenth-century counterparts adopted a more racially separatist and environmentally determinist stance, stressing the immutable health risks to Europeans and condemning creolization as a mark of degeneration. If the European “race” could not adapt to these conditions, then those of its representatives who spent a significant portion of their careers in the colonies required some sort of refuge where they could restore their health and well-being, which was inextricably associated with their sense of whiteness.

While climatological-cum-racial arguments of this sort served as a rationale for the rise of health resorts across the colonial tropics, Jennings shows that the French colonial spas were in certain respects distinctively French. They placed particular emphasis on the condition of the liver-“the fetish of French medicine” (p. 50)-as the determinative force in withstanding disease. Hydrotherapy was believed to be the best way to bring this organ back to proper function; hence, the French sought out mineral springs as their preferred sites for colonial spas. This privileging of hydrotherapy was so pronounced, Jennings suggests, that it was often recommended over quinine as a treatment for malaria. In advocating these medical nostrums, the French naturally were drawing on ideas and practices that had been prevalent at home for centuries, which is one reason the southern French spa town of Vichy became such a mecca for invalids from the colonies. But this connection between colonial and metropolitan notions of wellness and illness seems in some ways to cut against the grain of Jennings’ larger claim that the colonial climate was believed to pose a distinctive, racially specific threat to Europeans’ health. This view was more likely to have been articulated in the new tropical medicine, with its efforts to identify etiologies that were particular to those regions categorized as the tropics, not to an older, less climatically specific medical traditional of liver complaints and water cures.

When Jennings turns to the process by which individual spas were developed and promoted in the French colonies, he succeeds on the one hand in showing how they were conceived quite consciously to serve as “agents of Frenchness and whiteness” (p. 64) while demonstrating on the other hand that those efforts were often eroded by prior or competing claims to these sites by racially subordinated peoples. This was especially...

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