Two Extracts of Tropical Travel Writing

James Ranald Martin opens his 1837 ‘Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta’, with a quote from Hippocrates on the title-page:


‘It is necessary for a Physician, when entering a city of which he knows nothing, to examine its exposure, the predominant winds, the seasons, the nature and elevation of the soil, the quantity of the waters of which the inhabitants make use, and the kind of life they follow’.1


However, rather than examining the habits and lifestyle of the inhabitants, Martin was one of many European travelers to “the Tropics” to look upon their lives with utter disdain. ‘The Foundation of an English School of Medicine’, he writes, ‘…must prove one of the most direct and impressive mores of demonstrating to the natives the superiority of European knowledge in general’ (italics in original).2 There is little of the Hippocratic call to examine and learn about the life or habits of the local population in Martin’s remarks. Instead, they reveal a sense of superiority, and a belief in the righteousness of European colonialism. Shang-Jen Li argues that as the 19th c. progressed, British medical practitioners were less and less inclined to learn from native customs or from indigenous medicine- it was now seen as a ‘loss of the white self’, as a sign of contagion.3  Tropicality, with its pseudo-scientific observations, creates the perfect environment for the cultivation of scientific racism. Unlike Orientalism, which is rooted in an interest in history, languages and cultures of South Asia, Tropicality takes its inspiration from science, nature and observation. Despite its seeming dedication to empirical evidence and interest in the environment, writings about the tropics frequently omit mention of the local population or local practices, and instead focus on discussing the discrepancies between the imagined tropics and the actual environment travelers encountered.

For instance, in Joseph Hooker’s 1855 Himalayan Journals he does little to hide his disappointment at the disparity between the tropics he had imagined in his mind, and the “tropics” he encountered. Of the Sunderbunds he writes “these exhibit no tropical luxuriance, and are, in this respect, exceedingly disappointing”.4 As David Arnold argues, despite their “scientific” backing, the Tropics were frequently romanticised. Romanticism in tropicality played the role of glorifying nature, selling travelers the idea of a wild landscape which was rarely found by the traveler upon their visitation.5 As we can see from Hooker’s memoirs, , “the tropics” for him are more a playground for the medic, the naturalist, the botanist, the geologist, rather than a place on equal grounds with Europe. The tropics in these writings exist for European observation, cultivation and improvement. Even Hooker’s desire to see true “tropical” and “wild” nature appears false. When visiting the botanic garden during his travels, he writes that instead of a beautiful tropical garden he finds ‘an unsightly wilderness, without shade (the first requirement of every tropical garden) or other beauties’.6 Clearly, the reality he was in did not match the very specific European conception of a wild, yet cultivated tropics.

Beyond his disappointment with the nature, Hooker’s account of his early travelling experience seems devoid of people. He dedicates paragraphs to describing plants he sees, or buildings he stays in, but there appears to be no mention of the native population. Therein lies the contradiction of the tropics: they must maintain wilderness, but also careful cultivation. They must be a place of novelty for the European, but the medicine, the food, and the buildings must be European in style. Most revealingly, however, travelers’ disdain for the experiences, voices, and habits of the indigenous populations of the places the visited show that tropicality was and continues to be an imagined place.



Arnold, David. 2005. The Tropics and the Traveling Gaze: India, Landscape and Science 1800-1856. Ranikhet: Permanent Black.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1954. Himalayan Journals: Notes of a Naturalist. London: J. Murray.

Martin, Sir James Ranland. 1837. Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta. Calcutta: G.H Huttmann.

Shang-Jen, Li. 2013. “Eating Well in China: Diet and Hygiene in Nineteenth-Century Treaty Ports.” In Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century, edited by Qizi Liang, Che Leung, Angela Ki, and Charlotte Furth. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

  1. Sir James Ranland Martin, Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta (Calcutta: G.H Huttmann, 1837), front cover. []
  2. Martin, Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta, p60. []
  3. Li Shang-Jen, “Eating Well in China: Diet and Hygiene in Nineteenth-Century Treaty Ports,” in Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century, ed. Qizi Liang et al. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013). p124 []
  4. Joseph Dalton Hooker, Himalayan Journals: Notes of a Naturalist (London: J. Murray, 1954), p1. []
  5. David Arnold, The Tropics and the Traveling Gaze: India, Landscape and Science 1800-1856 (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2005), pp104-5. []
  6. Hooker, Himalayan Journals: Notes of a Naturalist, p2. []