Health, hearth and empire: Climate, race and reproduction in British India and Western Australia

Ruth A. Morgan*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    2 Citations (Scopus)


    In the wake of the Indian Uprising in 1857, British sanitary campaigner and statistician Florence Nightingale renewed her efforts to reform Britain’s military forces at home and in India. With the Uprising following so soon after the Crimean War (1854–56), where poor sanitary conditions had also taken an enormous toll, in 1859 Nightingale pressed the British Parliament to establish a Royal Commission on the Sanitary State of the Army in India, which delivered its report in 1863. Western Australia was the only colony to present its case before the Commissioners as an ideal location for a foreign sanatorium, with glowing assessments offered by colonial elites and military physicians. In the meantime, Nightingale had also commenced an investigation into the health of Indigenous children across the British Empire. Nearly 150 schools responded to her survey from Ceylon, Natal, West Africa, Canada and Australia. The latter’s returns came from just three schools in Western Australia: New Norcia, Annesfield in Albany and the Sisters of Mercy in Perth, which together yielded the highest death rate of the respondents. Although Nightingale herself saw these inquiries as separate, their juxtaposition invites closer analysis of the ways in which metropolitan elites envisioned particular racial futures for Anglo and indigenous populations of empire, and sought to steer them accordingly. The reports reflect prevailing expectations and anxieties about the social and biological reproduction of white society in the colonies, and the concomitant decline of Indigenous peoples. Read together, these two inquiries reveal the complex ways in which colonial matters of reproduction and dispossession, displacement and replacement, were mutually constituting concerns of empire. In this article I situate the efforts to attract white women and their wombs to the temperate colony of Western Australia from British India in the context of contemporary concerns about Anglo and Aboriginal mortality. In doing so, I reflect on the intersections of gender, race, medicine and environment in the imaginaries of empire in the mid-nineteenth century.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)299-250
    Number of pages50
    JournalEnvironment and History
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2021


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