The Paradisiacal Haze: Understanding the Tropics through an 18th Century Gaze

“that treacherous perfidious race of Beings, whose natural piratical dispositions might, by the small size of our vessel, [provoke] them to some act of violence”.

John Septimus Roe was a British explorer, navigator, and surveyor who is most renowned for charting the Western coast of Australia in the 18th century. He recorded his expeditions both in the ship logbook, letters, and navigational and coastal sketches. These sources are largely valuable for their contrasting depictions of his journey through Southeast Asia to get to Australia. Within them, we are confronted with both scientific visual representation and a haze of tropical madness- the phenomenon of ‘tropicality’, whereby imperial preconceptions of the tropical climate and its inhabitants seeped into their lived experience of these ‘other’ countries. As historians our task is to navigate the fog and determine the value of these sources beyond their accusations, preconceptions, and racism. Felix Driver’s work on the ‘Views and Visions’ of the tropics is significant for beginning this task.

Driver presents the idea of the “view” and the “vision” as a means for distinction between ‘tropicality’ and the tropical. He defines the view as a process where “landscapes are depicted at a distance, their surface features translated into a recognisable visual code”.[1] In this way, landscape sketches became a means of scientific representation through their “topographic aesthetic”.[2] Meanwhile, Driver argues, the “vision” was a dangerously “transformative” concept.[3] It included the spectator as an active participant in the scene, creating an image of the whole which was influenced by the preconceptions, motivations, ‘haze’ which imbued the explorer. Both concepts are useful for determining the influence of ‘tropicality’ on 18th century visions of Asia and Southeast Asia.

The full entry from Roe’s logbook on the Tamar, which set sail in 1824, reads as follows:

“Traces of Malays, who come here to fish for Trepang (a kind of blubbery soft fish, which sells well to the Chinese) were everywhere seen, and put us on our guard against that treacherous perfidious race of Beings, whose natural piratical dispositions might, by the small size of our vessel, [provoke] them to some act of violence”.[4]

Here, Roe ‘others’ the Malaysian population, by implying that their geographical position on an island influences their psychological nature. He suggests that because of their coexistence with the sea as a life source, they have “natural piratical dispositions”, as if the wild coastline infiltrates their character. They are violent, unpredictable, and domineering- all according to the small “traces” of their existence which Roe has actually witnessed. The notion of the tropical landscape becoming synonymous with the characteristics of a population also adds to the thrill of Roe’s adventure. He adopts a self-congratulatory tone when he later marks himself immune from the influence of the climate, which “saps” the strength of his colleagues- “I feel great pleasure in being able to say that [my constitution] is exempt from that particularity”.[5] Whilst the analytical interlude in the first entry related to the Trepang fish gives us a small insight into the transnational relationships across Asia and broader economic features of the Malaysian population, the extract is dominated by Roe’s preconceived “vision” of the tropics. His writing attempts to reconcile the haze of ‘tropicality’, which sees Asia as both thrilling and degenerative, with the empirical evidence of his expedition. In doing so, the haze becomes stronger, as his preconceptions of ‘tropicality’ are projected onto the natural landscape.

By contrast, Roe’s accompanying drawings are a valuable insight into his journey and serve as both an empirical and historical source which provide a “view” of the tropics uninhibited by his own gaze.[6] In his coastal sketches, the mountains form part of a panoramic view which suggest that we too, are a witness to this unfamiliar landscape. The observational detail of these sketches continues to the edge of the page, situating the viewer at the edge of the boat from which the sketch was made. Drops of plantain juice on the parchment itself immerse the viewer in Roe’s view, providing tangible evidence of the tropics, not as a singular specimen, but as a vibrant and interactive whole. Consequently, they are valuable for their scientific accuracy and spatial placement- we are aware of the presence of the explorer, without their unwanted encroachment on the real view. Rather than being immersed in a tropical haze, we are immersed in the explorer’s empirical and representational gaze, which sought to create an accurate and uninhibited portrayal of their travels. Driver states that the drawings are evidence of “more personal aspirations” too, a testament to the explorer and his craft. As such, they are evidence of a very real passion, rather than a passionate haze of imperialist intention.

“If we look more closely at the archive of tropical travel…it is clear that [the travels] raised as many questions as they answered. How was the experience of travelling itself to be put into words and images?”[7]

As Driver notes, the view of the tropics is hard to decipher from amongst the multi-layered visions of ‘tropicality’ which infiltrated the explorer’s mind. The questions which it raised for the explorer however, are of equal importance to the historian when studying travel accounts of Asia and Southeast Asia- what were the processes, both empirical and psychological, which were behind the words and images?

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[1] Felix Driver, ‘Imagining the Tropics: Views and Visions of the Tropical World’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, vol.25, no. 1 (2004), p.4.

[2] Ibid, p.4.

[3] Ibid, p.5.

[4] John Septimus Roe, The Mermaid and Bath Letters, (1817-1823), <> [accessed: 04 February 2022], p.124.

[5] Ibid, p.106.

[6] Felix Driver, ‘Imagining the Tropics’, p.10.

[7] Ibid, p.14

From Conquering Nature to Conquering Humans: Rangoon’s Response to the Plague.

Mary Sutphen argued in 1997 in favour of David Arnold’s position that germ theory did not affect the primacy of environmental determinism in the European doctor’s view of aetiology.[1] However, Sutphen’s article underplays the impact which bacteriologists’ linkage between plague and rats had upon municipal public health policy considerations. Sutphen is right to place colonial responses to bacteriology within the context of tropicality, but just because this new form of empiricism contributed to this hegemonic discourse rather than undermined it is not an indicator that such developments failed to make an historical impact. Indeed, there is a whole wealth of literature that highlights the role which the plague outbreaks of the 1890s and onwards had on the decisions that municipal authorities took in the name of public health, whether they be in road construction or the architecture of houses.[2]


In the case of Rangoon, Sutphen’s argument that, rather than diminishing the emphasis of environmental determinism, new biomedical knowledge had shifted its focus from natural miasmas to the insanitary conditions of cities’ slums is evidenced in the town’s Municipal Committee reports. It is no surprise that the committee’s first reported encounter with the plague in 1899 was accompanied in the same year’s report with a lengthy request for funds to perform land reclamation of the town’s suburb with the highest mortality rates, Lanmadaw, as it was only through improvement of the land that they believed disease rates could be reduced.[3] Not a single mention of rats appears in this report. However, when the plague finally did strike Rangoon in 1905, the destruction of rats was noted as one of the immediate measures to combat the epidemic, with requests for funds in order to change the sewer systems and to demolish the insanitary abodes of the town.[4] This same report does also bring up the need to reclaim the land of Lanmadaw, but this time the language had changed, without a reference to how the swampy soil contributed to the spread of disease as they had done in 1899, instead the necessity for reclaiming this land was entirely for the purpose of constructing new properties to offset the town’s rising house prices.[5] This shift in emphasis between the two reports would suggest that, as Sutphen argued, colonial authorities accepted the scientific link between rats and plague that bacteriology had made possible as the natural environment of these communities were no longer considered the main factor in disease spread, but rather the nature in which people lived. As the committee’s health officer reported:

‘the epidemic seems never to have been more severe in the… undrained and badly conserved quarters of Lanmadaw… than in the “Pucca Area,” which is better provided with… surface drains… but where the houses are often… four storeys in height, the lighting and ventilation very imperfect, and where over-crowding upon area attains its maximum… The only conditions common to all the infected dwellings were their general dirtiness and the absence of adequate light and ventilation, and the prevalence of rats in the vicinity.’[6]

However, Sutphen’s assertion that this ‘did not require colonial officials to change any of the routines they had used to control disease in the past’[7] was absolutely not the case in Rangoon, and the effects of this discursive shift bore itself out in drastically new approaches to municipal policy. For instance, in 1899 the committee sought to improve the drainage and infrastructure of the less urbanised sections of Rangoon, with the first response for prevention being the quarantining of ships from infected ports under the Venice Convention; there was little intention of changing how people living in these areas conducted themselves or organised their households.[8] Whereas, in the years following the 1905 report, with the blame for the plague’s spread being placed upon those dirty households attracting rats which the health officer had described, the committee started requesting designers to present examples of new ‘model houses for the poorer classes.’[9] With this, the rate of forced evictions increased as an amendment to the Burma Municipal Act of 1898 allowed for greater numbers of lower ranking officials’ signatures to count as providing sufficient authorisation for the demolition of buildings, a reflection of the increasing workload the rate of these demolitions were creating for the higher authorities in the effort to construct more free-standing masonry structures.[10] Finally, it is with the efforts to totally redesign the barracks provided by private businesses for their hired coolies that showed the extremity with which the plague had affected municipal policy, the 1910 report reading:

‘the want of power to control the laying out of private estates is a serious danger to the proper development of the town. The Committee is not eager to apply for these powers, but unless they are obtained and exercised or unless private owners exercise more liberality and foresight in the laying out of their estates… the health of the inhabitants of East Rangoon and other improved quarters will be imperilled by the existence of undrained, illventilated and grossly over crowded buslees which would put the slums of Liverpool to the blush.’[11]

A sentiment which was reflected across South Asia, with Robert Home directly linking the plague outbreaks to the development of new town planning techniques by taking a broader view of the discourses of colonial policy, a view which takes the impact of such developments into greater account than Sutphen’s focus on the immediate medical responses to such events.[12]


Therefore, it is clear that the link between rats and incidences of plague that bacteriology made possible greatly impacted the nature of municipal policy. The shift from theories that natural miasmas caused plague to plague being the result of human insanitary practices meant that local governments sought to exercise a new governmentality of biopower that increased controls over how indigenous people occupied domestic spaces. While it is important to note, to Sutphen’s credit, that the goals of colonialism existed similarly either side of the change from humanity needing to conquer nature to survive, to humanity needing to conquer humans to survive as both discourses sought to exploit foreign resources, the significance of this change lies in how the latter allowed the state to justify intensifying the regimentation of people’s lives. It is this change in policy that is absent in Sutphen’s article.

[1] Mary P. Sutphen, “Not What, but Where: Bubonic Plague and the Reception of Germ Theories in Hong Kong and Calcutta, 1894-1897”, Journal of the History of Medicine, Vol. 52 (1997), 81-113.

[2] Robert Home, Of Planting and Planning: The Making of British Colonial Cities (Abingdon, 1997; 2013), 149-199; Michel Sugarman, “Reclaiming Rangoon: (Post-)Imperial Urbanism and Poverty, 1920-1962”, Modern Asian Studies, 52: 6 (2018), 1856-1887.

[3] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality, for the Year 1898-99 (Rangoon, 1899), 18-19.

[4] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1905-06 (Rangoon, 1906), 11-12.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Sutphen, “Not What, but Where”, 112.

[8] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality, for the Year 1898-99, 29.

[9] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1907-08 (Rangoon, 1908), 21.

[10] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1909-10 (Rangoon, 1910), 14.

[11] Ibid., 16.

[12] Home, Of Planting and Planning, 149-199.

Newspaper Advertisements and the Promise of Hygienic Modernity

One of the most eye-catching aspects of newspapers, no matter what era, are advertisements. Ever since the advent of mass production and commercial sales, enterprising businessmen have attempted to sell a whole panoply of products. Chinese newspapers seem to have a penchant for advertising pharmaceutical products. A curious collection of diagrams published in 2017 highlights the overlaps between ads in the Shenbao and North China Daily News (NCDN) triggered an interesting deep dive into the appearance of specific ads in Chinese newspaper sources of the early 1900s. [1] These diagrams highlight an interesting evolution in the types of advertisements that appeared in Chinese Newspapers as perspectives on health evolved. Newspaper advertisements are powerful indicators of the zeitgeist of a region. In the case of pharmaceutical advertisements, it represented a powerful shift in the discourses surrounding hygiene and health in China. This was especially true in treaty ports, where increased accessibility to commodified drugs changed the nature of what health or weisheng (衛生) meant.

We begin with the primary source accounts found in newspapers from the early 1910s to the late 1940s, which denoted a marked shift in the number of pharmaceutical advertisements found in China-based newspapers. Shenbao in particular seems to have an eclectic mixture of pharmaceutical companies from Japan, the UK, the US and Germany. From 1914 to 1949, Bayer was commonly featured in both Shenbao and NCDN selling Aspirin and Cresival. While Aspirin is a household name in today’s day and age, used for the treatment of headaches and as a blood thinner. In the specific case of the Jiangsheng Bao (literally the sound of River Newspaper) a newspaper produced in Xiamen from 1918 to 1951, these pharmaceutical advertisements are so ubiquitous that most daily papers had at least one mention of medication. Once again, we see Bayer with a fairly large ad for Eldoform (anti-diarrheal) Mitigal (an ointment used to treat scabies) and Cresival. Of the many drugs advertised, Cresival seems to be the most mysterious. In the Jiangsheng Bao’s account of this medicine, it claims to clear phlegm and be the foremost cure for cough. In essence, a very good cough syrup. Bayer’s significant investment in Chinese newspaper advertisements seems quite unusual when taken out of context. Why would a German pharmaceutical company be interested in selling minor medications to people halfway across the globe?

Bayer Advertisement in 06/09/1932 Issue of Jiangsheng Bao [2]

The increased mentions of this medicine and for that matter, all types of medication indicated a significant shift in how Chinese people saw health as acquirable and consumable. In Ruth Rogaski’s Hygenic Modernity, she highlights how introduction to western culture increased the accessibility of ready-made remedies. [3] She discusses the wider adoption of Western hygienic norms throughout the 1920s and 30s in Treaty Ports throughout China: “For one and a half yuan, one could obtain weisheng in a pill.” Rogaski focuses most on the aggressive advertising of “Dr William’s Pink Pills for Pale People” a drug that was advertised heavily in the Shebao and NCDN from 1914 to 1949. [4] This pill was sold as a miracle cure for everything from “insomnia to intestinal worms”. She cogently comments on how these newspaper advertisements adapted themselves to the Chinese context, targeting a variety of figures such as the traditional male head of the household and their wifely counterparts. The ailments that these pills targeted were relevant to the discourses surrounding modernity and medicine at the time. [5]

The marked shift in how hygiene was seen as easily consumable and a mark of modernity drove pharmaceutical companies to set up shop in treaty ports such as Shanghai. Bayer set up its first Chinese factory producing Aspirin in 1936. [6] It seems that alongside the aggressive advertising in newspapers, Bayer was capitalising on this weisheng revolution and finding a market for commodified health. Their increased presence in newspaper advertisements across China was quite intentional. As the social discourse surrounding hygiene and modernity in China grew, so did the consumption of these “health consumables” that could improve not just the general health of the average Chinese person, but the health of the overall state and civilisation. These pharmaceutical newspaper advertisements in the Shenbao, North China Daily News and Jiangsheng Bao reflected on the rapidly evolving ideas on health and modernity in China that pervaded that period.

[1] ‘Circulations of pharmaceutical brands between the newspapers Shenbao and North China Daily News (1914-1949)’, MADSPACE, 5 May 2017,  <> [accessed 5 February 2022].

[2] ‘Jiangsheng Bao’,, 06/09/1932, <> [accessed 5 February 2022].

[3] Ruth Rogaski, Hygenic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China (London, 2004), p. 227.

[4] Ibid, p. 229..

[5] Ibid, p. 230.

[6] Bayer, ‘Bayer China History’ <> [accessed 5 February 2022].