In the British Caribbean, medicine was introduced to not only improve the health of indigenous people but also protect the well-being of the British administrators and military people. Researchers still develop debates on the question of the benefits of promoting tropical medicine in this region for colonialists and locals. As a result, it is possible to state that medicine in the British Caribbean became a “tool of empire” to protect the army and support the colonial expansion while minimising the risks of developing epidemics among indigenous people that could affect the British in this region.
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To state to what extent medicine was used as a “tool of empire” in the Caribbean region, it is necessary to analyse what practices and strategies were applied by the British. Firstly, the development of tropical medicine as the field of knowledge and the appearance of the first healthcare facilities in the British Caribbean was a response to threats for the British military. It was important to guarantee that soldiers and administrators received adequate medical help and could be treated while having malaria or dysentery. These initiatives could guarantee the protection of the political and social order in colonies.
Secondly, indigenous people who rejected vaccination or had no access to medical services remained to be threatening to the military. For instance, social and economic conditions in Trinidad did not allow people to follow sanitary rules, treat infants appropriately, and combat the spread of epidemics of yellow fever and malaria. Therefore, to control the situation in the British Caribbean and address problematic social and economic conditions, much attention was paid to standardising medical assistance, building healthcare facilities, and developing sanitary norms. The British officials discussed these actions as necessary because of the risk that the ignorance of indigenous people could negatively influence life in colonies with the focus on the British people’s health. Medicine became a “tool of empire” to spread ideas and knowledge among locals who were viewed as intellectually and socially inferior.
While comparing the situation in the British Caribbean to Africa and India, it is possible to state that the key principles of introducing medicine in colonies were the same: to protect the military personnel, to control the health of locals, to control morbidity and mortality rates, and to cope with epidemics. In these regions, the focus was on developing the principles of tropical medicine and sending healthcare professionals and military health workers to colonies to understand how to address and treat diseases that were not typical of Britain and other colonies. Differences in using medicine as a “tool of empire” in these colonies were mainly in the extent to which indigenous people opposed vaccination and acceptance of medical help depending on the spread of epidemics. Thus, the key problem in the British Caribbean was a high level of infant mortality that, according to officials’ reports, was not so high in the African countries and India.
The analysis of the British officials’ approaches to introducing medicine in colonies indicates that they used similar principles in the Caribbean region, India, and Africa. In all these cases, medicine was presented as a “tool of empire” to help to establish a new political and social order in these territories and make environments more friendly mainly for the British people coming to these lands. The promotion of medicine among indigenous people was also based on a pragmatic purpose of making the population healthier, and thus, more productive and controlled.
Beattie, James, Edward Melillo, and Emily O’Gorman. Eco-Cultural Networks and the British Empire: New Views on Environmental History. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.
Chakrabarti, Pratik. Medicine and Empire: 1600-1960. London: Macmillan International Higher Education, 2013.
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De Barros, Juanita. Reproducing the British Caribbean: Sex, Gender, and Population Politics after Slavery. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
De Barros, Juanita, Steven Palmer, and David Wright, eds. Health and Medicine in the Circum-Caribbean, 1800-1968. New York: Routledge, 2015.