‘Agents of Plague’: Racial disorder and border anxiety in the British response to the Mumbai Plague (1896-1914) and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Authors: Alexander Benham*, University of Oxford
Topics: Historical Geography, Medical and Health Geography, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: Colonialism, Coronavirus, Plague, Britain, India, Race, Borders, Health
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Britain's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been dominated by racialised discourses of risk, contagion and control. Some commentators have sought to understand this response by comparing it to previous epidemics and pandemics, but such critiques have often been confined to events in the recent past – to Ebola, Swine Flu or SARS – and limited to seeking superficial similarities – merely identifying prior ‘scapegoats,’ ‘scares’ and ‘stereotypes.’

This paper, by contrast, argues for both a longer history to British racialised responses to infectious diseases, and for a deeper critical, and more geographical analysis of them. My study is thus grounded in the British response to the Mumbai plague in India in the late 1890s. I examine how British experts and officials identified the supposed ‘filthy habits,’ irregular movements and irrational opposition of the Indian population as both the cause of the plague’s spread, and the consequence of an inherent, racial inferiority. This ‘racial disorder’ of the colonised population engendered a form of ‘border anxiety’ in the British, which dictated the profoundly racialised and spatialised nature of their response. To control contagion – the spread of disease as disorder – the British in Mumbai turned to border operations composed of interdiction, inspection and incarceration. With this context established, this paper then looks to the continuities between past and present, and suggests how the theories and practices of contagion control developed during the Mumbai plague have been transferred to Britain’s response to coronavirus in the present.

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