- Sex and Control: Venereal Disease, Colonial Physicians, and Indigenous Agency in German Colonialism, 1884–1914 by Daniel J. Walther
The title, focus, and overall objectives of Daniel J. Walther's monograph are intriguing. According to the author, he "takes a biopolitical and comparative approach" (2) when discussing venereal disease, colonial physicians, and indigenous agency in Germany's overseas colonies in Africa, the Pacific, and China from 1884 to 1914. Walther uses "the lens of discourses surrounding health" (2) throughout his analysis, as he aims to expose the disciplinary measures and mechanisms of social control put forward by health professionals.
Walther begins by shedding new light onto complex interactions between male sexuality, prostitution, and venereal disease. He discusses a recorded rise in prostitution and venereal disease in the late nineteenth century based on numerous statistics [End Page 428] from that era. The author acknowledges "contemporary criticisms of the statistics" (13) early on in his study and rightfully mentions the need to contextualize such data as moral statistics. In fact, a rise in prostitution and venereal diseases, imagined or real, ultimately became a way to highlight the moral decline of German society overall, a dynamic also apparent in other historical contexts. Walther then explores "male colonial sexuality" (24) in more detail, indicating how "white males often turned to indigenous women for sexual gratification" (25). He concludes that the arrival of Germans in the colonies meant the growth of prostitution, which led to the spread of venereal diseases and ultimately resulted in a call for more medical intervention and stricter disciplinary measures.
The author then explores "Venereal Disease in the Colonial Context" (51) of the German empire, including the threat of such illnesses for German colonial authorities more directly. For instance, "venereal diseases reduced the fighting capacity of regular and colonial (both indigenous and German) military forces" (53) during rebellions against German colonial authorities in East and Southwest Africa. As a result, colonial doctors began "assessing the threat statistically" (58), a step that helped collect, label, categorize, and ultimately control indigenous populations "both medically (as 'diseased' individuals) and racially (primarily as either 'European' or 'colored,' and hence as a group)" (73). This important point highlights the intricate nature of mechanisms of social control within colonialism.
Walther lastly discusses ways German colonial authorities fought against venereal diseases in the colonies. He contends that German colonial medical staff had a similar training and background, which created a surprisingly coherent medical discourse detectable throughout the German empire. Walther goes on to analyze attempts to implement preventive measures before providing more details on "a disciplinary approach that necessitated more physically invasive and simultaneously punitive practices" (94). It included regular medical examinations of prostitutes and the regulation of bordellos; yet it also, in a way, applied to certain treatment methods. An assessment of these measures follows, as does a discussion of "perceived ongoing challenges" (121). Local colonial authorities addressed the latter with healthcare measures, like setting up a syphilis camp in German East Africa (123). A short conclusion makes broader claims, including that "in the metropole and in the colonies, physicians were agents of modernity" (132); Walther also compares these dynamics to British colonialism, for example, noting that "colonial physicians helped buttress and justify German rule oversea" (135), thus ultimately agreeing with Philippa Levine's assessment for parts of the British empire (Prostitution, Race, and Politics, 2003).
This study raises intriguing questions about sex and social control within the colonial context, but it would benefit from the inclusion of more everyday voices. The author nicely utilizes theoretical frameworks and makes some excellent connections and comparisons; he also hints at the benefits or advantages of illegality [End Page 429] (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1977) for colonialism more broadly. At the same time, he falls short when focusing on the everyday person or when trying to directly question the work of those who concentrate "on male elites within society" (6). Historical records from German Southwest Africa are filled with autobiographical works, journals, oral...