Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 9 (2002)
Climates and Constitutions: Health, Race, Environment and British Imperialism in India, 1600-1850 by Mark Harrison, New Delhi: Oxford University Press (1999), xiv, 263 pp.
Initially, the Indian climate did
not seem especially perilous. Guarded optimism about the British capacity
to adjust without in the process losing British distinctiveness
in physique and character seemed to prevail until the early nineteenth
century. To a surprising degree, physicians enjoined displaced Britons
to take up many of the customs and habits of the already adjusted local
inhabitants, to follow their style of diet and clothing. Medical advisers
also tended to disaggregate geographical conditions, to describe variations
in the salubrity of India, and to suggest that white sojourners stick
to the safer, more benign, locales. But in the 1830s, fears of European
degeneration in a generally depleting foreign climate began to dominate.
Certainly, some parts of India, especially the hills, still seemed more
supportive of the European bodily constitution than others, but on the
whole the outcome looked grim for anyone long resident on the sub-continent.
Indianization was still expected, but now it was to be dreaded, not welcomed.
Rather than exemplars, Indians increasingly were represented as object
lessons, degenerate, diseased, and disease-dealing. Opposition came to
replace analogy. Acclimatization, if it were possible, would imply pigmentation
and degeneration. There would be little hope for European settlement now.
Harrison makes a strong claim for
the substitution of social causes of disease for environmental etiologies
in the 1830s, suggesting a parallel with the sanitary reform movement
in Britain. Cholera, and other emerging diseases, seemed more a product
of filth and overcrowding than of any atmospheric disorder. The customs
and habits of Indians, once extolled in medical texts, now appeared the
root causes of the diseases that threatened Europeans. Although few thought
at the time that Indians were themselves carriers of disease agents, their
fixed insanitary ways were allegedly generating and distributing filth
and other noxious conditions that would give rise to epidemics. But even
as Harrison provides extensive support for his arguments, I came to wonder
if his emphasis on the understanding of epidemics, more than endemic disease,
perhaps distorts the picture here. I suspect that one might, in connection
with more routine diseases, find that climate and geography still appeared
to exert considerable influence: indeed, in the conclusion, Harrison mentions
that into the 1870s, Indian physicians were derided in Britain for their
persistent environmental preoccupations. It is not surprising that by
this time the ordinary British climate was not thought especially pathogenic
for the British, but the extraordinary Indian climate would surely have
continued to excite medical concern until the end of the century, or later.
Erwin Ackerknecht once remarked that even the microbial "tropical
medicine" that developed in the 1890s still implied a notional geography
of disease, and it would be interesting to explore more carefully the
persistence in the colonial world of environmental pathologies, long after
their disappearance in Europe.
In the conclusion, Harrison tells
us that this book is about "the 'making' of race and the growing
alienation of Europeans from the Indian environment" (p. 215). It
is odd how few historians of colonial medicine have paid much attention
to the construction of race and environment in medical texts before now.
Harrison's focus on race is perhaps the most novel aspect of this excellent
study, and those interested in the framing of human difference in colonialism
will have to engage with his rather provocative thesis. Anyone who has
tried to understand nineteenth-century racial thought knows just how complex
and slippery it was, and how easy it is to give a partial or distorted
account. There are too many different opinions sometimes held by
the same person and too much context for them. But racial thought
must not be ignored, or passed over. Harrison argues that in the eighteenth
century, physicians assumed that human types were dynamic and plastic,
responding rapidly to environmental changes, and therefore readily acclimatized.
Accordingly, it seems to him "inappropriate to project the concept
of race back onto the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries" (p. 12).
He describes, however, a "hardening of racial boundaries" (p.
19, and see p. 104) in the early nineteenth centuries, a "new hereditarian
bias in theories of human difference" (p. 106). The supposed hardening
of physical properties underlay the increasing pessimism toward acclimatization
during this period (p. 136). But Harrison seems here to amplify the influence
of Cuvier, Owen and Knox, all of them opposed to theories of human transmutation,
and to mute the continuing appeal of Larmarck and his argument for the
inheritance of characteristics acquired during the life of one's parents.
There is an alternative, and I think
more plausible, explanation of shifts in the understanding of race and
environment in the nineteenth century. Most colonial physicians still
believed in the dynamism of racial type, still expected acclimatization,
through the remainder of the century, but their increasing pessimism derived
in fact from their lower valuation of the outcome, not from any doubt
about its feasibility. Acclimatization came to mean not so much a minor
adjustment as degeneration. As Nancy Stepan and others have shown, it
is not really until the end of the nineteenth century that scientists
and medicos generally come to agree on the fixity, or at least the greater
robustness, of racial categories. Harrison's grasp of nineteenth century
racial thought thus seems particularly weak. He invokes a definition of
race that would make sense only at the end of the century, failing to
see that the distinction he makes between "innate" and "acquired,"
between "heredity" and "environment," is anachronistic
at its beginning. This strange effort to project early twentieth-century
views of the fixity of race, its alienation from circumstances, onto the
early nineteenth century greatly damages what is otherwise an illuminating
study of colonial medical theory.
Given his narrow and anachronistic conception of race, no wonder Harrison finds it "exceedingly difficult to unravel" (p. 220) the relationship between "racialistic" and "reformist" impulses in colonial India. But his pioneering work will no doubt inspire others, who may be less hampered by a mismatched conceptual framework, to do so.