- Malaria and Victorian Fictions of Empire by Jessica Howell, and: Malarial Subjects: Empire, Medicine and Nonhumans in British India, 1820–1909 by Rohan Deb Roy
Malaria, a disease which remains one of the top ten killers globally, is of particular interest to scholars of nineteenth-century Britain because it was seen as a principal obstacle to imperial ambitions. As the century wore on, malaria moved from being a general category of febrile disease, often with a recurring element, to being something increasingly specific, treatable with a particular kind of plant product. Finally it came to be associated with mosquitoes and a certain disease agent, a member of a subgenus of the protozoa plasmodium. The two books discussed here focus on malaria in the British imperial context in this transformational period. Rohan Deb Roy’s Malarial Subjects: Empire, Medicine and Nonhumans in British India, 1820–1909 is a detailed, valuable reading of the history of the period and especially the cultivation of cinchona and development of quinine, brimming with footnotes to primary materials and material from Bengali vernacular texts. Jessica Howell’s Malaria and Victorian Fictions of Empire also provides historical context, but focuses primarily on reading fever in novels of the period. Howell [End Page 705] offers an intriguing understanding of authors’ use of malaria to signal a salutary openness to experience of the colonial landscape and to create opportunities for self-knowledge.
Deb Roy organizes his book mostly around quinine, between its discovery and the first imperial conference on malaria in British India. His is not a triumphalist narrative about a cure, and he shows that malaria as a category is in part coproduced with the emerging narrative around quinine, especially from the 1850s on. Deb Roy traces the large-scale production of the drug by the Howard family in Britain, which began synthesizing quinine starting in the late 1850s. Later, as government-run factories began to set up in India to produce the drug more cheaply, metropolitan makers insisted on the inferior quality of the colonial product. Deb Roy details a complex set of conflicts in which the labelling of the drugs was “contingent upon the shifting configurations of authority in the overlapping worlds of pharmaceutical business, colonial government and scientific knowledge” (211).
Locally made quinine became possible with the transplantation of cinchona from Peru to India in the 1850s and 1860s. Deb Roy shows that the plants quickly became valuable commodities: not only as objects of medical, chemical, and botanical knowledge but also of commercial rivalry and anxious imperial administration. Deb Roy focuses on Clements Robert Markham, who established cinchona plantations in India and hoped they would provide a lasting benefit to the people, comparing cinchona to the melons supposedly left by the Mughal Empire that survived as a part of daily life. This was envisioned in part as a reparative gesture after the mayhem of 1857, a demonstration of benevolence that, for some, helped to justify empire. It was also profitable. The apparent fragility and new world origins of cinchona gave it added mystery and value.
Malaria was a diagnostic category that, by mid-century, was understood as responsive to quinine. Of course, since quinine was also given prophylactically, the claims for its impact on malaria were limitless. If you did not have malaria, quinine had prevented it; if you did, well, quinine would treat it! And if quinine did not work, it probably was not malaria. The typical association in this period of fever with particular landscapes across the globe shifted slowly to a demonization of the colonial landscape by the 1850s; malaria came to be associated not only with marshes but also rocks and soils—“marsh poison, granite poison, sandstone poison”—and Black and brown bodies (99). A brief chapter considers the...