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Colonial Medical Practice in Nineteenth Century Ceylon

Colonial Medical Practice in Nineteenth Century Ceylon

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Western medical knowledge in South Asia can best be understood as state medicine - in other words in terms of the economic and acclimatizing goals of the colonisers. The medical controversies which will be explored in this project are situated at an interesting intersection of medical history in the nineteenth century, the last decades of miasmatic theories of disease, when climate was seen as an important and largely uncontrollable causal factor and the early decades of the sanitary movement, shortly before the fine-tuning of this movement in response to developments in bacteriology. It was within this context that public health developed in Ceylon. Hygiene and medical theories underwent modification according to developing theories of racial difference and increased understanding of tropical environments. Although increasingly sceptical throughout the nineteenth century of traditional medical knowledge, European doctors remained at least partially open to learning from local doctors who were more familiar with tropical climates and thus Ceylon to be an excellent laboratory for the study of variation in disease.

This project focuses upon the role of colonial medicine and public health in the rationalization of the plantation system in mid-nineteenth century Ceylon. Colonial ideas concerning health and tropical disease were developed with an eye to the percieved differential nature of raced-bodies. Optimistic and self-assured ideas of economic progress and the superiority of western understandings of the climate, the body, sanitation, moral and physical health were tested often to the limits of endurance and belief by the shear physicality of the British encounter with tropical environments and peoples. The life of the modern rational, ever-calculating and controlling mind was severely challenged by what were perceived to be the failures of acclimatization, and strong visceral feelings of abjection due to uncontrolled boundaries of race, contagious disease and other tropical sources of pollution and miasma.

The project explores how rational theories of reproducing labour in the tropics were intertwined with strong bodily reactions of abjection that served to undermine the self-confidence of imperial modernity. A monograph entitled, In the Shadows of the Tropics: Climate, Race and Bio-power in Nineteenth Century Ceylon has emerged from this project.


Publications arising from the project include:

  • In the Shadows of the Tropics: Climate, Race and Bio=power in Nineteenth Century Ceylon. Aldershot: Ashgate. (2007).
  • Sombres pensées dans la maison coloniale:masculinité, contrôle et refoulement domestiques à Ceylan au milieu du XIXème siècle" In Espaces Domestiques. Construire, Aménager, Représenter. Edited by B. Collignon and J.-F. Staszak, Paris: Bréal. (2004).
  • "Embodying Colonialism?: Domination and Resistance in 19th century Ceylonese Coffee Plantations." Journal of Historical Geography 28, 3 (2002) , pp. 317-38.
  • In T. Jazeel (ed) "Landscapes of Despair: On the Fatal Networks of Nature/Culture in Nineteenth Century Ceylon" Spatialising Politics. (forthcoming)