Suspicious Corpses: Body Dumping and Plague in Colonial Hong Kong (1894 – 1905)

Between 1894 and 1926 bubonic plague raged on almost annual basis in Hong Kong, causing thousands of deaths, mainly amongst the Chinese population of the British colony. In the course of this long epidemic, British authorities took drastic and often draconian measures against the disease, whose pathogen was identified in 1894. These measures elicited the resistance of both the Chinese elites and the lay population of the colony. Although historians have extensively discussed these colonial dynamics as regards the initial outbreak of 1894, later outbreaks and their social impact have been largely ignored.

This paper examines a practice that resonates with recent events in Ebola-stricken West Africa: body dumping. Seen as a potential cause of infection (what contemporary epidemiology would call a “cultural vector”) as well as a political problem of civil disobedience to public health policy, body dumping was systematically studied and problematised by the British, who believed that the practice stemmed from native suspicion towards intrusive anti-plague measures. The paper explores shifting ideas and policies surrounding colonial suspicion of corpse dumping as a supposedly fuelled by Chinese suspicion of the British anti-plague apparatus in Hong Kong. These, the paper will argue, were crucial in the colonial inter-constitution of the native body and city as sites of pestilence and disorder.

Christos Lynteris

Presented at Suspect Science: Climate Change, Epidemics, and Questions of Conspiracy; CRASSH, University of Cambridge, 19 September 2015

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