Thesis ID: CBB122385036

Dead Labor: Urban Technologies of Mass Death in Colonial Bombay and Calcutta, the 1880s – 1950s (2023)


This dissertation approaches key questions in the study of colonial urban modernity through methods in the history of medicine and sciences. Through a comparative focus on the colonial cities of Bombay and Calcutta, I explore the new found interests of colonial urban planners, public health experts, and Indian social elites in the “unclaimed bodies” of the poor, which were considered both diseased and disposable, and attendant concerns with the scientific management of subaltern death. By exploring the converging logics yet the divergent outcomes of colonial state and native elite efforts to manage the death of the urban poor and indigent as an urban problem that required scientific solutions such as the gas crematorium or relegating mass burials for unclaimed bodies to the suburbs, this study in comparative urbanism demonstrates how the imperatives of colonial public health and political economy followed by a heightened period of native critique between the two world wars reconfigured global ideas of health and technologies. From the mid-nineteenth century, epidemics and famines had provided the occasion for British and Indian social elites to reconstitute social power and remake boundaries of caste and community in the context of urban migration and industrial labor. While famines happened in Western India, an emergent preoccupation with tropical diseases in Eastern India had reconfigured the meaning and the social experience of death for the urban poor. Working class bodies thus became the locus of the entangled knowledge-making of health, technology, and religion in regionally specific ways. In particular, modern technologies such as the gas and electric crematorium enabled the spatial reorganization of labor, caste, and community in the service of a colonial political economy: modern technologies for the efficient and hygienic disposal of the dead bodies of the indigent and impoverished were thus also solutions for managing the lives of the working castes and classes. The scientific management of subaltern death was not just the preoccupation of anatomists, doctors, and public health engineers but as well, of the British Parliament, international health organizations, Indian and British members of municipalities, missionaries, religious charity leaders, communal organizations, anti-caste leaders, and subaltern mortuary workers. Simultaneously, anti-colonial and subaltern politics transformed the effects of scientific knowledge and infrastructure in both Bombay and Calcutta, albeit differently in response to framing antagonisms of caste, capital, and community. Thus, despite the normalizing and homogenizing impetus of colonialism, health policies and attendant technologies reacted to and reflected the impact of local configurations of power and urban space. Putting the history and anthropology of death into conversation with the global history of medicine, science, and technology in the context of colonial and postcolonial South Asia allows us to understand how global technologies under imperialism engaged with local social meanings to bring about epistemic shifts in perceptions and practices of the body, while also altering spatial and social relations. The subcontinental history of the crematorium thus reflects the ongoing impact of discourses and infrastructures of public health and hygiene in redefining bodies marked by social distinctions of caste, class and religion in the colonial metropole through acts of spatial politics. The introduction of the crematorium in colonial India reproduced extant practices of social hierarchy and spatial segregation but it also became an enabling infrastructure through which anti-caste activists, Marxists and Socialists imagined scientific modernity and a future without segregation.

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Authors & Contributors
Kah Seng Loh
Arnold, David
Axelby, Richard
Bhattacharya, Sanjoy
Curtis, Stephan M.
Harris, Richard
Archives of Natural History
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Environment and History
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Journal of Social History
Medical History
Australian National University
Cambridge University Press
Franco Angeli
Hong Kong University Press
I. B. Tauris
New York University Press
Public health
Great Britain, colonies
Medicine and society
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
20th century, early
18th century
17th century
21st century
Calcutta (India)
Bombay (India)
Bengal (India)
United States. Army
Botanic Garden (Calcutta, India)

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