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Malarial connections: British India and beyond, 1820–1912

April 15, 2010

By Rohan Deb Roy

My doctoral dissertation speaks to the histories of colonialisms, connections and the makings of categories of knowledge. It studies how the overlapping worlds of pharmaceutical business, colonial governance and medical knowledge informed each other in British India from 1820 to 1912. Examples are derived from historical literature on malaria, the cinchonas and different forms of quinine.

This dissertation breaks away from the essentialism and anachronism that characterise most existing histories of malaria and quinine in the 19th century. Instead, it follows the shaping up and the remaking of these categories at various sites. It shows how the contours of a drug and a diagnostic category shaped one another. Different moments in the constitution of quinine as a commodity, I argue, overlapped with considerable mutations in knowledge of malaria. Quinine began to be recognised as the most valuable alkaloid inherent in the cinchona barks in the 1820s. This coincided with the publication of the first book-length treatise on ‘malaria’ in the English language, written by John Macculloch in 1827. The third annual meeting of the All-India General Malaria Committee was organised in Madras in 1912. My dissertation explores how perceptions of ‘malaria’ changed during this period. It, then, probes the different meanings of such changes.

This thesis has tried variously to unsettle the expected linear sequences of scientific knowledge construction. Such anticipated chronologies assume a definite pattern where awareness of a problem inevitably precedes its solution, an answer takes shapes only after a coherent question has been posed, and prevailing understandings about a disease necessitate knowledge of a drug. This dissertation has shown how knowledge of cinchona, quinine and malaria in British India in the relevant period did not necessarily conform to such predictable patterns, and instead could be co-constitutive. It explains such co-constitution by detailing regular and enduring traffic of conversations involving races, colours, purities, classes, knowledge, credibility, legitimacies, agricultural improvements, governments, fieldwork, insects, distance, commodities, markets, diseases, laboratories, factories and plantations. These eclectic sites and themes were themselves reshaped and reinforced while they were trapped in such elaborate discursive interchanges. I show how the worlds of political economy, colonial governance and scientific knowledge converged and sustained one another. Notions of linear temporality and claims of being connected beyond specific territorial frontiers enabled and resulted from such convergences.

The dissertation has been structured into five chapters. Between the late 1840s and the 1860s, cinchona seeds and plants from ‘natural forests’ in South America were transferred to the sites of ‘experimental plantations’ in certain Dutch, British and French colonies. There appears to have been a shift in the circulatory networks associated with the cinchonas. With emphasis on British India, chapter 1 studies how travel accounts and bureaucratic correspondence projected such shifts as a legitimate transfer of a valuable plant. Such narrations were integrally tied to the assertions of authority on the plants. Knowledge of the cinchonas appeared to be constituted, contested and reshaped through such acts of narration. Focusing on a range of English sources, chapter 2 shows how perceived geographies of malaria underwent corresponding shifts in the course of the 19th century. Malaria increasingly began to be associated with predominantly colonial situations and landscapes. Chapter 3 focuses on the Burdwan fever – a fever epidemic in Bengal attributed to malaria in the 1870s. It shows how the making of the epidemic and consolidation of knowledge of Burdwan as a locality constituted simultaneous processes. More tellingly, it also shows how the figure of quinine could be variously invoked to stereotype both human bodies and localities as ‘malarial’. Malaria, it appeared, could cause myriad forms of debility. However, the precise ‘malarial’ identity of a malady was often established from how the suffering body responded to quinine.

Chapter 4 then asks whether ‘quinine’ itself could be considered a homogenous, fixed, inflexible category. Various ways of defining, judging and manufacturing ‘pure quinine’ appeared to coexist in various factories between the 1860s and the late 1880s. ‘Purity of quinine’, this chapter argues, was contingent upon shifting equations of authority in the overlapping worlds of pharmaceutical business and medical relief. Thus despite being invoked to determine the malarial identity of various illnesses, quinine itself remained a malleable if not elusive entity. Chapter 5 explores various lives of quinine beyond the government factories in British India from the 1890s to the 1910s. It reveals how quinine was reshaped through various strategies of enforced consumption and processes of distribution. This chapter situates the vigour inherent in distributing the drug within the context of an apparently unprecedented slump in the wider imperial economy of quinine. These decades also witnessed substantial changes in the meanings associated with the diagnostic category, malaria. Along with a variety of other relevant sources, the proceedings of the Imperial Malarial Conference organised in Simla in 1909 and of the third annual meeting of the General Malaria Committee held in Madras in 1912 encapsulated the interconnectedness between these three different stories. At the moment, I am in the process of rewriting this dissertation into a publishable book manuscript.

Rohan Deb Roy is a Postdoctoral Fellow in History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, India.

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