- Leprosy and Empire: A Medical and Cultural History
In his Introduction to Leprosy and Empire: A Medical and Cultural History, Rod Edmond, Professor of Modern Literature and Cultural History at the University of Kent explains that he is not a "historian of medicine, but a literary-cumpostcolonial critic of strongly historicist bent." His study of the modern history of leprosy1 is situated in the "new imperial history" which seeks to show how metropole and colony were "mutually constitutive" [p. 17]. What follows is a series of chapters which, in varied ways, explore how responses to leprosy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries may illuminate important aspects of imperialism in the colonies as well as how the colonial experience fostered—or rekindled—concerns of contamination, contagion, infection and degeneration within the metropolitan powers themselves.
Edmond argues that despite the now known fact that leprosy is not a readily communicable infection, it has long been so stigmatized in Judeo-Christian cultures because "the leprous body challenges the fundamental distinction between life and death, putrefying and decomposing while alive and still able to reproduce" [p. 3]. In the Western European Middle Ages, lepers were stigmatized, banished and on occasion persecuted. Leprosy however appears to have been less [End Page 814] of a concern in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when, as Foucault has famously argued, "the leper"—as a target of disciplinary regimes of exclusion—was succeeded by "the lunatic" and "the criminal." Edmond, following Zachary Gussow, shows that in the era of high imperialism leprosy resurged as a matter of medical, sanitary and cultural anxieties. It was "retainted" with a new sexualised and racialised metaphorical language which associated the source of the bacillus with the tropics and especially with Africans and indentured workers from India and China [p. 6]. The new age of scientific medicine did not offer immediate answers either. Instead, as Laura Otis has argued, the development of germ theory in the 1870s meant that there was widespread anxiety that "[I]mperial cell bodies might be in danger from colonized ones, even in the metropolitan centres, and there was concern about the health and the integrity of the national body at home and the imperial body overseas" [p.11].
Conceding that medical historians are more likely to date the impact of the concept of "invading germs" until later in the 1800s, Edmond readily acknowledges that there are significant difficulties in the trans-disciplinary approach he takes which draws from a wide variety of (mostly secondary) sources and perspectives. More conventional social and medical historians, for instance are likely to be intrigued, but somewhat wary, of Edmond's theoretical trajectory which, via the lens of leprosy, includes the work of Paul Gilroy on "camp-thinking" in which the social order wrought in the colonies fed into racialised nationalisms and models of "inclusion and exclusion which were eventually brought home to Europe in the form of Nazi genocide" [pp. 12–13]. Edmond draws too on Giorgio Agamben's analysis of the biopolitics of modernity which reduce some to "bare life" in order to keep them outside the camp of civilized humanity. In the chapters which follow Edmond seeks to interrogate these ideas so as to " . . . historicise the processes that Foucauldian cultural history and theory conceptualise, and to suggest that they were not always as totalitarian and clear-cut as Gilroy and Agamben . . . assume." Instead, Edmond wants to suggest "a more conflicted genealogy and a more nuanced history." He is attempting, he says, a "kind of medico-cultural history" [p. 14] which "trace(s) the interconnections between empire and nation in respect of leprosy, and which "demonstrate[s] the involvement of literary culture in this process . . . " [p. 18]
Chapters One and Two both focus on nineteenth century medico-scientific attempts to identify and understand the cause of leprosy; whether it was hereditary or contagious; and whether the threat of its return came from within Europe or from the colonies. These chapters show the contested nature of medical science as well as illustrating the variance within nineteenth century liberal...