Suspicious Corpses: Body Dumping and Plague in Colonial Hong Kong
Between 1894 and 1926 bubonic plague raged on almost annual basis in Hong Kong, causing thousands of deaths, mainly among 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 chapter examines a practice that resonates with recent events in Ebola-stricken West Africa: body dumping. Seen as a potential cause of infection (what contemporary epidemiologists would call a ‘cultural vector’) as well as a political problem of civil disobedience to public health policy, body dumping was systematically studied and problematized 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 practice supposedly fueled by Chinese mistrust of the British anti-plague apparatus in Hong Kong. These ideas, the chapter will argue, were crucial in the colonial inter-constitution of native bodies and city as sites of pestilence and disorder.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Suspect Science: Climate Change, Epidemics, and Questions of Conspiracy conference at Cambridge’s Centre for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). I would like to thank the conveners of the conference, Nayanika Mathur and Alfred Moore, as well as the panel’s discussant, Sir Richard Evans, for their feedback. Research leading to this chapter was funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme/ERC grant agreement no. 336,564) for the project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.