Alan Bewell

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Annotated by:
Kennedy, Meegan

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism


Bewell examines the rise of "colonial geography," the assumption that disease naturally belongs to the colonial setting. He argues that British colonialism was "profoundly structured" by disease encounters, as diseases began to piggyback on the increased mobility of both troops and trade (2). The book traces colonial disease as both figure and reality in travel journals, diaries, medical treatises, prose, and poetry of the eighteenth century and the Romantic period. It focuses on the rising British anxiety about colonial disease from the mid-eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century.

Romanticism and Colonial Disease examines the development of the field of medical geography, tracing the cultural meaning of various disease theories focused on climate, topography (disease landscapes), diet, habit, gender, and of course race. Bewell argues that British identity was based on a relational model, in which national health, and even "British" diseases such as tuberculosis, could be understood only in contrast to the tropical diseases that defined colonial lands.

The Asiatic cholera pandemic of 1817, as it approached ever nearer to British shores, shook the nation by explicitly showing that colonial disease had become global. Chapters focus on specific projects and problems, such as the doomed attempts to explore the Niger River and "open" West Africa to European trade, or the problem of the diseased colonial soldier, rather than tracing a general history.

Bewell includes readings of Tobias Smollett, Oliver Goldsmith, William Wordsworth, SAmuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon Byron, William Hogarth, Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, Charlotte Bronte, and the Shelleys, as well as little-known writers like Joseph Ritchie and Thomas Medwin.

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