Skip to main content
Updated date:

Quarantine: Local and Global Histories Review

quarantine-local-and-global-histories-review

It seems funny to have picked up the book Quarantine: Local and Global Histories back in January, just a few months before the rise of COVID-19 caused nearly the entire world to be put into quarantine. It isn't quite the same quarantine, and perhaps English lacks lexilogical clarity - after all, being put into quarantine as a traveller, the main focus of Quarantine: Local and Global Histories - or isolated from the population due to having a disease, not out of fear that you might get it, are very different from the quarantine which has been imposed near universally, where every person is supposed to minimize contact with others. But it still makes for a fascinating experience to read it and to think of what life might have been like for people placed into social isolation, to wait helplessly until time had expired and it was judged as safe for them to re-enter regular society, and the vital role the quarantines have had in serving as ways to enforce borders and establish separation, just like today where international travel and communication has been so greatly limited.

In the introduction to the book, the transnational, global nature of quarantine stations is emphasized, and their role as centers of the international system of commerce, trade, and movement of peoples. It contrasts quarantine procedures across the world, and the importance of quarantine stations in the history of globalization.

Chapter 2, "The Places and Spaces of Early Modern Quarantine," studies where quarantines were imposed in early modern Europe, the length and style, what quarantine practices looked like, the architecture and style of quarantine hospitals, and administrative structures.

Malta's Lazaretto

Malta's Lazaretto

Chapter 3, "Early Nineteenth-Century Mediterranean Quarantine as a European System," proposes that quarantines were a vital, interconnected, communicative system which were an instrumental part about delaminating the border between the European and non-European world in the Mediterranean, After the disruption of the Napoleonic wars, the Mediterranean quarantine system expanded massively instead of fading away, and the communication between them show their modernity and their integral role as a European system.

Chapter 4, Incarceration and Resistance in a Red Sea Lazaretto, 1880-1930," travels to the Hejaz and the construction of a quarantine station for pilgrims to Mecca on their Hajj, and the resistance, rebellion, or discontent shown by the quarantined pilgrims.

Chapter 5, "Spaces of Quarantine in Colonial Hong Kong," deals with the nexus of the problem of both promoting trade and free commerce, vital British objectives, and simultaneously dealing with fears of largescale population transfers and immigration causing disease, in colonial Hong Kong. This led to segregation, attempts to control smuggling and mobility, and public health interventions.

Chapter 6, "Quarantine in the Dutch East Indies," traces two extensive but potentially dangerous migratory fluxes in Dutch Indonesia, the movement of Chinese coolies into the colony and the constant pilgrimage to Mecca. This resulted in two different quarantine stations, one created by the state for Mecca pilgrims, and the other by planters for Chinese coolies.

Chapter 7, "The Empire of Medical Investigation on Angel Island, California", looks at the system of medical examination and detention erected by the United States on Angel Island to control the passage of Asian immigrants into the United States, particularly in a constant search for hookworm, and the resistance (particularly expressed through wall carvings) of Chinese immigrants to this practice.

Chapter 8, " Quarantine for Venereal Disease: New Zealand, 1915-1918," reflects on the quarantine of returning New Zealand troops who had been rendered medically unfit not by combat, but rather by the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, which led to attempts to cover it up and to quarantine them in isolation to prevent information on them from leaking out to broader society.

Chapter 9, " Influenza and Quarantine in Samoa" compares and contrasts the experiences of American and British (formerly German) Samoa in the Spanish Flu Pandemic, as the American side was exceptional in not being touched at all by the Spanish Flu, while the British side had one of the most brutal and crushing infections in the world, killing nearly a quarter of the population, and explains why this happened, the different factors at work for both, and what the long term impacts of the disease were.

Chapter 10, "Yellow Fever, Quarantine, and the Jet Age in India: Extremely Far, Incredibly Close," shifts the subject of quarantine to nearly the modern day, with India's intense efforts to ensure that foreign yellow fever strains did not arrive into the country by air travel, resulting in quarantining that was as strict as interning returning ministers who travelled abroad. Beyond any actual element of health safety, measures such as these served a role in demonstrating public vigilance against disease, while measures against the potential transmission of the virus continued colonial-era ideas on hygiene and public health.

Chapter 11, "Sydney's Landscape of Quarantine," examines the physical legacy left behind by quarantine stations in Australia and the messages carved in rock and stone by the detainees.

Chapter 12, "Saint Ducos: The Last Leprosarium in New Caledonia," describes the story of the leper colonies in the French Polynesian colony of New Caledonia, in a beautiful, near utopian environment, established in 1918 to replace terrible conditions in the previous leprosariums. The French religious orders were very intensely involved here, and the lepers were a crucial crossroads of colonialism, French religious humanitarianism, and the deprivations, sufferings, and indignities suffered by the lepers.

The inside of the Japanese National Hansen Disease Museum

The inside of the Japanese National Hansen Disease Museum


Chapter 13 shifts to Japan, in "History, Testimony, and the Afterlife of Quarantine: The National Hansen's Disease Museum of Japan," which is used to examine the changing role of medicinal museums and their status as less representations of progress and more of focusing on the suffering and tragedy of individuals. From Norway, to Hawaii, and Japan, administration changes or the involvement of the residents in the museum led to the narrative changing to focus on their stories. However, in Japan the government's involvement in the 2000s after the more participatory efforts by the former leprosarium confinees led to the second iteration of the leper museum to be significantly less personal and far more in line with state objectives and control than it had been before.

Chapter 14, "Citizenship and Quarantine at Ellis Island and Angel Island: The Seduction of Interruption," concerns itself with the emotional and psychological elements (particularly expressed through the poems written on Angel Island's wall) of immigration quarantine stations like Ellis Island and Angel Island (for the second time in the book) in the US, and the role of these places as part of the heritage of immigration in the public consciousness.

Quarantine is a very broad subject, as we have become well used to today - there are medical quarantines for travelers, permanent quarantine for permanently infectious individuals like lepers, and today, there are society-wide quarantines to try to limit transmission in the context of diseases like Covid 19. This makes writing a book about quarantines to be very difficult, since there are so many different types of quarantines to be covered. In light of this, Quarantines: Local and Global Histories does a good job of providing a number of fascinating and interesting aspects of quarantine, relating to important subjects of economic development, identity, cultural memory, and medical development.

While it was somewhat unexpected from the title, the section on lepers was fascinating, particularly the cultural elements in French Polynesia, in New Caledonia. This is a great showing of how the sanitarium was received in the public eye, through literature ranging from Hawaii (by James A. Michener) to Motorcycle Diaries (2004), to Le baiser aux lépreux by François Mauriac, and how it embodied multiple meanings, include Catholic salvation, colonialism, and hope. Another excellent chapter is chapter 3, on quarantine stations as a European system - there has been plenty which has been noted upon the idea of Europe and Asia and the association of the Ottoman Empire, and particularly Egypt, with the plague, kept at a distance, but few other works have noted how quarantine institutions were part of a network system which served to define a European separation from the "East" not merely in terms of borders but in terms of cooperation.

This does show however, that the book is somewhat arbitrary - it shifts suddenly from quarantine as an institution to block diseases from spreading, and moves instead to quarantine as a way to control lepers, and leper museums. Some of the chapters on lepers are quite interesting, but it feels like the entire section on them matches poorly with the rest of the book, as if the editor merely wanted to get a few additional chapters to fill it out. I think that these would have been better off split into a separate book, on lepers, while having this book be purely devoted to quarantine stations as places of passage. This would never be enough to develop a truly comprehensive history, which deserves another book, but it would have given additional material on a more coherent theme.

Furthermore, some of the chapters tend to fall into what I think of as scholarly babble - perhaps enlightening to some few cultural scholars who read it, but generally wordy and making simple ideas far too complex - such as chapter 14, which spends page upon page discussing the cultural meaning of immigration heritage sites, with the reader's eyes glazing over. Most chapters are better thankfully, although some, such as the one on Sydney, are of doubtful broader utility.

Overall the book makes for a reasonably interesting collection of events - although with the natural flaw and drawback of this, that it is scattered and lacks focus, jumping from place to place and time to time. It hardly makes sense to read it with the intent of an understanding of the topic of quarantine as a whole: it is not by any means an exhaustive history, and instead it is more of a selection of snapshots of the history of quarantines throughout the years. But I think it has collected a good and interesting number of these snapshots, and that they relate to each other enough that they work together.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

Related Articles