The ‘Scourge of Modern Times’: Cholera, Race, and Empire in Early Nineteenth-Century British Illustrated Print Culture

Sciampacone, Amanda (2022). The ‘Scourge of Modern Times’: Cholera, Race, and Empire in Early Nineteenth-Century British Illustrated Print Culture. Journal of Victorian Culture (Early Access).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/jvcult/vcac020

Abstract

The coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore concerns over the emergence of a new deadly disease, its rapid spread across global networks, and the ostensible threat posed by the Other. These concerns are not new. The emergence of an epidemic form of cholera in what European medics described as the fetid jungles of Bengal in 1817 and the five pandemics that swept across the world inspired similar fears. With cholera’s arrival in England in 1831, it took shape in the British cultural imagination as an Indian entity that threatened Britain not just with death, but with degeneration. As medics were unable to identify its cause, cholera was depicted both through its effects on the body and as an embodied figure. Medical and satiric illustrations attempted to make visible the invisible illness. In pictures of the cholera patient, the disease was framed not by its most visceral and racial effects, but by its most visible symptom: the body turned blue. It then became an embodied agent: first as an orientalized scarecrow supposedly used by doctors to frighten the populace and then as a malevolent spectre spreading death. Visually, cholera was characterized by the colour blue, which recalled another apparent product of India, indigo, and served to colonize medical knowledge through an acceptance of certain characteristics over others. Yet, circulated through print, these images depicted the horrors of the disease to the public, visually demonstrating how cholera could corrupt the English body and the heart of the British Empire.

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