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  • “The Tender Frame of Man”: Disease, Climate, and Racial Difference in India and the West Indies, 1760–1860
  • Mark Harrison (bio)

Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism has reminded us that European expansion was not simply an act of accumulation and acquisition, but that it was sustained by an “almost metaphysical obligation to rule subordinate, inferior, or less advanced peoples.” 1 But how was it that Europeans came to see themselves as fundamentally different from and superior to the peoples over which they ruled? What part, if any, did medicine play in the process by which difference and hierarchy were conceived? 2 This article explores these questions through a study of British medical texts written in India and the West Indies between 1760 and 1860. In their [End Page 68] attempts to explain the relative susceptibilities to disease of Europeans, Indians, and African slaves, medical men were drawn to consider the question of racial difference. Their work had a profound effect upon the rhetoric and reality of colonial expansion, as well as upon the development of medicine and the natural historical sciences.

The relationship between disease, race, and climate in the European colonies was first considered in Philip Curtin’s Image of Africa (1964), which examined the impact of the tropics on the European mind and revealed the crucial link between theories of disease and racial difference. 3 But historians were slow to develop this theme, and it was not until the mid-1980s that there were signs of a renewed interest in European perceptions of health and disease in the colonies. 4 At the same time, scholars such as Mary Dobson and Philip Curtin (in his most recent monograph) began to reexamine mortality data for white settlers and troops stationed abroad. 5 This scholarship was accompanied by growing historical interest in “racial immunity,” 6 and in the “acclimatization” of plants, animals, and human beings. 7 [End Page 69]

There is a tendency in some of the early work on acclimatization theory to regard the concept of “racial” immunity as the inevitable outcome of distinctive disease profiles among different races. However, as I seek to demonstrate in this paper, the ways in which medical men understood the relationship between disease and race were far more complex. Concepts of racial immunity varied considerably over time and between contemporaries, and reflected the contradictions arising from colonial domination. Shifting power relationships in the colonies, together with new intellectual currents emanating from the metropole, wrought a profound change in the way Europeans came to see their bodies in relation to their subjects and the tropical environment. Anxieties created by the abolition of the slave trade, together with the hubris generated by the British conquest of India, focused medical attention more closely on apparent differences between races. The guarded optimism about acclimatization that was characteristic of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment diminished as the perceived boundaries between races began to harden. Europeans came to regard themselves as exotica in foreign soil: feelings of superiority and vulnerability were two sides of the same imperial coin.

Tropical Disease Environments

Underlying the diverse opinions expressed in colonial medical texts during the eighteenth century lay a single unifying theme: the distinctiveness of the tropical environment and its maladies. It was generally thought at this time that most diseases—including those of temperate climates—varied in their nature and incidence according to locality. But the diseases of tropical climates—though regarded as different in degree rather than in kind from those of temperate zones—were deemed sufficiently distinctive to warrant a reappraisal of European medical knowledge. 8 A few European physicians, such as Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), expressed skepticism about the distinctiveness of diseases in the tropics, but such opinions (as Sloane himself noted) were at variance with both lay and professional opinion in the West Indies. 9 More typical were the [End Page 70] views of the army surgeon Robert Jackson (1750–1827). Jackson’s observations of disease in America and the West Indies between 1774 and 1804 led him to stress the distinctiveness of tropical maladies and the need to amend many medical theories taught in Britain. He distinguished between two types of fever: one, which he termed...

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pp. 68-93
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