Building out the rat: ecology, race and infrastructure in India and South Africa

In India, plague was initially understood to be a disease of moral character, race, class and filth; something reformable through sanitation and government intervention. As scientific paradigms slowly shifted over the first decade of the 20th century, plague came to be seen as a zoonosis, and plague as a ‘moral’ problem was conceptually incorporated into a wider ecology. The moral problem of the individual thus became a moral problem of the nature of India writ large. This conceptual shift coincided with a sense of fatigue within the colonial apparatus and a gradual abandonment of anti-plague measures.

In South Africa plague arrived in a series of urban epidemics between 1899 and 1910. In the following decades plague was established in the local rat population but also in populations of other rodent species in the region. This multi-hostal situation required constant vigilance and citizens were exhorted to wage war on the rat with an increasingly sophisticated array of technologies and public health messages. Running alongside these arguments for species eradication, however, was a belief in the efficacy of “building out” the rat: as infrastructure continuously improved and British colonial urban planning advanced across the territory, the rat would be defeated. The regulation of endemic, multi-hostal plague exposes the links between environment, ecology, economy and race. We ask how paradigms of zoonosis might be understood to change or alter disciplinary relationships between states and subjects.

To be presented at the Anthropology of Zoonoses conference, 26-27 February 2015.

Nick Evans, University of Cambridge

Branwyn Poleykett, University of Cambridge


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