Sunday, October 22, 2017

Aidan Forth's "Barbed-Wire Imperialism"

Aidan Forth is Assistant Professor of British imperial history at Loyola University Chicago.

He  applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain's Empire of Camps, 1876-1903, and reported the following:
Camps, throughout history, have served a multitude of functions, from incarcerating political suspects, to rounding up refugees, enemy aliens and military combatants. One thread that connects this global history is the language of disease. Whether in Nazi Germany, where camps detained “carriers of the bacillus of Bolshevism” (218) or at Guantánamo Bay, where barbed-wire incarcerated Haitian refugees suspected of carrying AIDS (227), medicine and social sanitation have proven central metaphors of modern statecraft. Likewise, in the British Empire, medical concerns led to the detention of more than a million colonial subjects during a global pandemic of bubonic plague in 1897. A system of medical quarantine camps, from Hong Kong to South Africa, and especially in India, interned those suspected of carrying the contagion. In the name of “disease control,” camps (like the one pictured on the cover of the book) detained “certain classes of people” who “as a rule are dirty in their habits” (82). Page 99 is the final page of chapter 3, which systematically examines this vast system of detention and lays the groundwork for future chapters on camps for political rather than medical “suspects.”

Ultimately, the chapter concludes that medical quarantine largely failed to stop the spread of plague. In the words of Claude Hill, Private Secretary to the Bombay Governor, plague camps were “not only ineffective,” they “created an undercurrent of discontent” among the native population (99). Yet camps remained popular among colonial officials because they offered an excuse to remove undesirable social and racial elements—“the scum of the Bombay population,” according to one police official (56)—from the center of colonial cities. Urban “cleansing” became racial “cleansing.” British plague camps also provided effective logistical models for the billeting of mass populations in the future. These included the “concentration camps” of the South African War (1899-1901), which interned “verminous” and “extremely dirty” populations during a colonial “dirty war” (167). Interestingly, officials from India with experience managing plague camps were eventually seconded to administer this new system of camps in South Africa.
Learn more about Barbed-Wire Imperialism at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue