Empire’s Double Edge: Coercion and Care in British Imperial Camps, 1876–1903

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:50 PM
Hampton Room (Omni Shoreham)
Aidan Forth, Loyola University Chicago
Some of the world’s first refugee camps appeared in the British Empire in the late 19th century. “Famine camps” in India (1876-7, 1896-1901) detained emaciated refugees and billeted relief applicants on public works projects while “plague camps” (1896-1902) segregated populations suspected of harboring disease and accommodated those evacuated from unsanitary locales. Meanwhile, camps during Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) adapted a tool of colonial welfare to the context of war. South African “concentration camps,” as they were known, were both instruments of military violence and humanitarian care that provided food and shelter to destitute refugees while disciplining a population cast as uncivilized and unhygienic.

Although camps in each case were contingent responses to different disasters, they emerged from more basic rationalities oriented around the care and control of diseased, destitute and otherwise dangerous bodies. Whether wartime refugees, famished vagrants or suspected disease-carriers, the inmates of British camps were considered both victims and potential perpetrators—they were simultaneously “at risk” and “a risk.” When faced with colonial distress, British commentators expressed humanitarian concern, but they also turned to technologies of detention that violated the legal rights of colonial subjects and experimented with new forms of bodily coercion. The dictates of sympathy and security coalesced in camps constructed across British India and South Africa, which maintained basic rights to life while arranging suspect bodies in legible and disciplinary spaces. First assembled in the late-Victorian period, the mandates “biopolitical” management set a precedent for future episodes of encampment in the twentieth century.