Tropical Medicine and the Victory of Empiricism

  • Philip D. Curtin


When Bleak House was published, ten years after the sailing of the Niger Expedition, the memory of the famous failure was still fresh enough to serve Dickens’ purpose. He chose it as the favorite philanthropy of Mrs. Jellyby, his parody of all that was narrow, impractical, and unhumane in the humanitarianism of Exeter Hall. It was a useful target. First of all, it was philanthropy at a distance, a convenient point for his attack on the “telescopic philanthropists,” who righted wrongs only in the far corners of the world and ignored the evils on their own doorstep. Furthermore, it proved how impractical Exeter Hall could be, and in this case the impracticality was dominated by their apparent unconcern for the known facts of the African “climate.” The high mortality, which had served as the excuse for recall, raised still higher West Africa’s reputation as the most dangerous climate in the world. In 1848, The Times merely echoed the popular impression when it called the Bights, “the most deadly sea,” and Fernando Po, “the most pestiferous land which the universe is known to contain.”1 When Dickens, the most popular writer of his day, chose the African climate for a further round of abuse, he helped to keep alive for later generations the image of the white man’s grave.


Hydrogen Sulfide Yellow Fever African Coast Slave Trade Gold Coast 
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  • Philip D. Curtin

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