To Fiji with Measles
- The Black Death and the Transformation of the West by David Herlihy
Harvard, 117 pp, £17.95, October 1997, ISBN 0 674 07613 3
- Plague, Pox and Pestilence edited by Kenneth Kiple
Weidenfeld, 176 pp, £25.00, January 1997, ISBN 0 297 82254 3
- Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism by Sheldon Watts
Yale, 400 pp, £30.00, January 1997, ISBN 0 300 07015 2
So-called World History originated in an attempt to escape from the tyrannical perspective of dead white Euro-American males, yet that ‘world’ perspective has had the effect of making those same males more dominant than ever. Thus Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History (1982), however heroic in intention, ends up asserting that extra-European peoples did have a history, but it was a history of their relations with Euro-American economies. In his Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm expresses his contempt for the historians who deny a past to Africa or Asia, but himself provides an account which gives all the agency to Europe.
Vol. 21 No. 5 · 4 March 1999
Terence Ranger (LRB, 4 February) has succumbed to the temptation to criticise me for not writing the book he himself would have written. I would have thought that the very title, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism, makes it clear that I am not writing about indigenous African, American or Asian medical systems. He criticises me for saying little about the transformation of African disease environments before and after extensive contact with whites, overlooking a controversial section in the book on this very subject. Ranger has also fallen prey to two fallacies. One is that any historian living in Africa is necessarily an Africanist; not so, I am a European/British/Northumbrian historian who happens to find inspiration in living in Cairo while writing about cultural misunderstandings and conflict. The second fallacy is to accept the old colonialist idea that ‘epidemics seem to arise from causes that are independent of human agency.’ It is true enough that disease types may evolve without human agency; but I think it is clear by now that epidemics are spread by human agency. The current issue of Nature strongly suggests that Aids is an ancient disease, but that it was human agency in the last few decades that led to an epidemic. This last point (applied to malaria) might encourage Ranger to temper his romanticising about indigenous cures. It is my understanding that before the onset of the slave trade and extensive contact with Europeans along the coast, most Africans would not have been exposed to the deadliest forms of malaria; they could not, therefore, have effective ‘traditional’ cures against what would be essentially a new disease.