Jim Downs’s Maladies of Empire studies the impact that colonialism, war, and slavery had on the field of epidemiology in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its geographical focus stretches across North America, the Atlantic, West Africa, the United Kingdom, and its colonial possessions in the Indian Subcontinent. It addresses the inability of historians of science, until the 1970s, to question scientific thought and embrace what Warwick Anderson calls ‘universal knowledge’. Through this book, Downs, a professor of Civil War era studies and history, attempts to adjusts popular and academic perceptions of our medical past, as well as of our understanding of inventions, innovations, and intellectual achievements by highlighting the forgotten contributions of the colored, conscripted, enslaved, and oppressed in the production of new ideas about medicine. Downs’s overarching argument is that epidemiology ‘developed not just from studies of European urban centers but also from the international slave trade, colonialism, warfare and the population migrations that followed all of these’ (3).
I was cornered at a party recently by someone who had overheard that I was an historian of slavery and the British Empire. People like me, they had been warned, were teaching students about how uniquely evil the British were, how we should all be ashamed of our history. They were no cheerleader for Empire, but they also had no patience for the ‘woke’ activists rampaging across the country tearing down statues, cancelling people they didn’t agree with, and generally trying to erase the bits of the past they didn’t like. Above all, they wanted to impress upon me the importance of balance in historical analyses of Empire. Slavery was obviously A Bad Thing, but had I considered that we were the ones who abolished it, and also (here they hesitated for a moment, but pressed on), why don’t we ever hear about the African side of the slave trade? Perhaps I should teach that in my ‘course’. As I tried to respond to some of these points, wearily reproducing rebuttals that are by now so familiar to me that I’m never sure if I’ve already said them in any given conversation, the dialogue pivoted without me. Now we were talking about Hong Kong. Surely even I would admit that British imperialism in Hong Kong was largely benign? That’s the Empire, isn’t it? Some of it was good, some of it was bad. Why can’t people handle complexity nowadays?
Perhaps I am attending the wrong parties. But to be fair to my cross-examiner, they could hardly be blamed for their alarm. As Alan Lester skilfully vivisects in this forthright, illuminating, and hugely readable primer, a culture war over Empire is being assiduously propagated by a small but tenacious group of British politicians, academics, and journalists. Billed as ‘boldly confront[ing] apologists for the British Empire (including the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretaries)’, Deny and Disavow tackles the deliberate misrepresentations of recent calls for recognition and reform made by Black Lives Matter and other campaigning organisations, as well as the clear majority of historians working in the field. Lester intersperses an admirably dispassionate anatomy of the culture warriors’ various strategies to distance Britain from its own history with punchy ‘snapshot’ accounts of some of the key events and figures that are now, apparently, controversial.