- Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain's Empire of Camps, 1876–1903 by Aidan Forth
Giorgio Agamben's claim that the concentration camp has become the nomos of the modern – the terrifying idea that the camp has become the model for the way modern states attempt to regulate all social and political life – has provoked heated discussion and new scholarly interest in tracing the ways that the practices of the modern state have historically borrowed from the material and ideological structures of these barbed-wire stockades.1 At the same time, the so-called 'colonial turn' seen in genocide and Holocaust studies has also breathed new life into the debate begun by Hannah Arendt about the colonial origins of modern totalitarianism.2 Against this backdrop, Aidan Forth's Barbed-Wire Imperialism offers an important and timely intervention.
Based on an impressive range of material drawn from four continents and over twenty different archives, Forth pieces together the largely forgotten and misunderstood history of what he terms Britain's 'empire of camps' in India and South Africa during the late [End Page 250] nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While his approach is comparative, Forth is keenly attentive to the local particularities and contexts that gave rise to different kinds of famine, plague and concentration camps, and he does well to veer away from sweeping generalizations and overly simplistic comparisons. For instance, although Forth traces the genealogy of these imperial camps back to the same Victorian practices of welfare and social control that gave rise to prisons, factories and work-houses in metropolitan Britain, he also convincingly demonstrates the crucial ways in which racial thinking, Social Darwinism and Partha Chatterjee's 'rule of colonial difference' marked these colonial camps out as entities unique in their own right. Camps were thus both sites for modern practices of confinement and discipline, while also retaining 'outmoded' practices of physical coercion and labour shunned by metropolitan modernity (p. 19). Forth furthermore traces the ways in which a nexus of colonial administrators and 'camp experts' from across the empire refined and adapted these camps to different situations. Victorian prisons and workhouses offered the blueprints for the camp, while famines and plagues in India provided ample opportunities for experimentation, innovation and expansion, until, finally, the camp was exported to South Africa, where it reached its apogee during and after the Boer War.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Forth situates his analysis of the proliferation of these camps within Foucauldian frameworks of knowledge, governmentality and biopolitics. He sees these camps as products of a late-Victorian 'episteme', geared towards 'curing' or 'rehabilitating' 'diseased, destitute, or otherwise "dangerous" bodies' (p. 4). These could range from so-called 'criminal tribes' in India, to victims of famine and plague, and, in the case of Boer civilians, an entire population suspected of harbouring dangerous political loyalties. In so doing, Forth lucidly demonstrates how camps were designed as incubators for loyal, sanitary, orderly and ultimately governable subjects (p. 10).
While Forth does not shy away from emphasizing the horrors and suffering faced by those unfortunate souls who found themselves interned as a result of collective and largely indiscriminate containment measures, one of his most important interventions is to demonstrate how these camps were conceived of, first and foremost, as humanitarian responses to famine, disease and war. In so doing, he lays bare the delicate and often reciprocal relationship between colonial repression and aid. Of course, the majority of these crises were either exacerbated or entirely manufactured by the British themselves. [End Page 251] Late-nineteenth century famines in India were aggravated by cash-cropping, ruthless revenue demands and the continuation of grain exports during times of scarcity; plague and disease spread like wildfire through peasant populations weakened by these famines, who were then corralled into unhygienic and overcrowded camps; and the mass displacement of civilians from their homes in South Africa was provoked by the scorched-earth military strategy pursued by Lord Kitchener against Boer guerrillas. And yet, in spite of all this, as Forth demonstrates, the liberal-minded...