- The English System: Quarantine, Immigration and the Making of a Port Sanitary Zone by Krista Maglen
In The English System, Krista Maglen seeks to provide the first full account of how quarantine and port sanitation developed in England in the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Refined during a period punctuated by significant international sanitary conferences and the accelerated global movement of people and goods, Maglen challenges the notion that port quarantine was an inflexible policy of exclusion; rather, in the English case, it was a relatively fine-tuned tool of public health that accommodated the demands of commerce, mass migration, liberalism, and medical theories about disease causation.
According to Maglen, 1892 was a pivotal test of British quarantine. That year, the cholera pandemic posed a drastic test to a system that had become virtually obsolete in Britain, which had sought to integrate port activities with agrarian markets, urban-industrial production, colonial territories, and foreign trade. Maglen shows how, for most of the later nineteenth century, vessels entering ports were excluded on the basis of disease categorization (commonly yellow fever, plague, and cholera, but not smallpox), an approach derived mainly as a response to geopolitical maneuvering at the International Sanitary Conferences and designed to minimize the disruption of trade. The creation of Port Sanitary Authorities in 1872 enshrined the “English System” in law, whereby port regulations were allied closely to public health interventions that were available to other local government jurisdictions. The conformity between British port authorities and their inland counterparts enables Maglen to deploy the concept of “sanitary zones,” or “in-between spaces” into which “the control exerted over the homes and bodies of the poor in Britain’s towns and cities” (p. 36) was extended to ports and ships. Rather than the arcane practices of blanket exclusion witnessed elsewhere along the coastlines of Europe, this “control” was exercised through activities involving the isolation of patients and disinfection of vessels. It also incorporated the collection [End Page 167] and sharing of information about the progress of epidemics, the whereabouts of ailing bodies, and the observation of potentially diseased passengers.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the book is the way in which Maglen turns westward to interpret the transatlantic dialectic between American and British quarantine-cum-immigration policies. The former’s strict approach to the putative immigrant-as-disease-carrier, as exemplified by the 1891 Immigration Act, did not have noticeably significant public health repercussions; the number of migrants returned to British soil on health grounds were miniscule. Rather, for some British politicians, the American approach to quarantine underlined the inadequacies of British immigration policy and the regulation of incoming aliens more generally; as a result, the “sanitary zone” became a space over which arguments about of immigration control in the early twentieth century were articulated. Health considerations were part of—though by no means all of—the revised immigration regulations introduced by the Aliens Act of 1905. However, it was the structure and personnel of Port Sanitary Authorities that assumed the duties under the Act’s processes of medical inspection, but the new responsibilities were almost identical to those under the old system.
Although The English System provides an important corrective to the historical perception of quarantine as a draconian and unbending approach to disease control, there remained some nagging questions for this reviewer. First, the main components of the British style of quarantine—disease reporting, hospital isolation, disinfection—are not themselves subjected to any detailed scrutiny. These each have their own complicated history of partial uptake and contested development in towns and cities that was taking place at exactly the same time they were being adopted in port sanitary zones. Because The English System’s main focus is on London, the reader is left wondering if the patchwork of variable disease control practices across Britain was not reflected in port cities too; what factors might have driven such variability; and what efforts were made at standardization. Second...