Intimate Empire: Bodily contacts in an imperial zone

Claire Anderson

Warwick Anderson's fascinating new book is the outcome of meticulous research into the relationship between colonisation and medical practices in America‘ s administration of the Philippines, 1898 - 1930s. The author argues that as Americans sought to maintain their own corporal and psychic health during this imperial encounter, colonial medicine gradually came to represent Filipinos as a ‘contaminated' race , and so attempted to ‘civilise' and ‘reform' them through a focus on personal hygiene and social conduct. This is a history, therefore, of the development of ‘biomedical citizenship (p 3).

Colonialism, race and medicine

To some extent, the book is firmly embedded within the traditions of the ‘history of medicine', and tells us more about the relationship between often unstable perceptions and representations of race and disease leprosy, cholera, hookworm, malaria - in a hitherto unknown context. However, it has further depths which constitute an important intervention into the historiography of colonialism, race, and medicine. First, Anderson studies everyday practices such as the management of human waste and the control of crowds. Second, he tracks the relationship between medical practices and the development of peculiarly colonial perceptions of whiteness and in a particularly interesting manoeuvre - masculinity amongst American doctors and scientists themselves. Third, the book makes an original attempt to grasp the continuities between colonial and post-colonial practices, and to show how U.S. interventions provided the basis for later policies, both in the Philippines and internationally. As such, Anderson speaks to growing concerns within emergent historiography about the intimate effects of empire, and the configuration of America as a colonising or imperial power. It breaks further ground in creating ‘a specific genealogy of metaphors, practices, and careers that links the colony with the metropole' and, in an often neglected enterprise, in linking experiences in and of the Philippines with other colonies (p 7).

I would like to focus briefly here on Anderson's fascinating account of the Cullion leper colony (ch 6). Cullion was an ‘isolated outpost' in the far west of the Philippines archipelago (p 158), and became the site for the isolation, therapy, and socialisation for lepers from across the islands. Unlike missionary-run leper colonies elsewhere, this was an experiment in citizenship for a ‘contaminated' community, and lepers lived in houses, worked, voted in elections, and engaged in approved forms of leisure like theatre, music, and baseball. Cullion had its own form of currency, and there were even bakeries and an ice-cream parlour. Exile to Cullion was not, as Anderson explains, represented as the deprivation but the creation of liberty (p 178). Such ‘civic transformation' was always underpinned with colonial brutality, however. For instance, both leprous and non-leprous children were being removed from their parents at an early age. One is left pondering how the Cullion lepers themselves and also their descendents represented their experience of social extrication and civic transformation in this and other respects.

The volume is heavily illustrated with a variety of fascinating photographs ranging from interior views of hospitals and leper wards, a line-pail cholera brigade, doctors and nurses, a hookworm dispensary, toilets, and even a leper brass band. I should have liked to know more about the relationship between such images and the textuality of Anderson's description of medical and hygiene practices. In what context were such photographs produced? Were they published in books and journals, or perhaps made into postcards for widespread circulation? Who looked at them, and where and how? Moreover, what is the relationship between the medical representation of both Americans and Filipinos - and their personal habits and practices - in text and image?

Nevertheless, this fascinating and ambitious book is of broad appeal, and will intrigue and challenge readers interested in the history of the Philippines and American colonial expansion, as well as the history of medicine, ‘race', masculinity, confinement, and discipline.

Clare Anderson,
Associate Professor (Reader)
Department of Sociology,
University of Warwick




1. Stoler, Ann Laura ed. 2006. Haunted by Empire: geographies of intimacy in North American history, Durham and London, Duke University Press.