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date: 07 December 2021

Climatic Determinism and the Conceptualization of the Tropics in British Indiafree

Climatic Determinism and the Conceptualization of the Tropics in British Indiafree

  • Rituparna Ray ChowdhuryRituparna Ray ChowdhuryRishi Bankim Chandra Evening College


The geographic concept of tropicality emerged as an operative tool in the colonizing efforts of the European powers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since the colonizing encounters proved fatal for many Europeans in South Asia, particularly during the initial phase of settlement when their mortality rate was far higher than that of the natives, attempts were made to understand the impact of the tropical climate upon the Western constitution. Based on the ancient Hippocratic doctrines of humoral pathology and the narrative of Enlightenment thinkers, colonial medical professionals endeavored to determine a correlation between health and environment. According to Western classical understanding, health was dependent upon various climatic and environmental factors. With the prevailing perception that the oppressive climatic conditions of India and its hazardous disease-infused environs were inimical to the survival of the Anglo-Indians in South Asia, the ancient concept of climatic determinism was revitalized during the colonial period. This theory, which argued that people tended to resemble the dominant characteristics of the climate in which they lived, proved convenient at a time of aggressive expansion, when moral grounds were required for justifying the Western designs of conquest and exploitation. Explanations like environmental determinism encouraged conjectures that the tropical climate of India bred only “lazy” and “degenerative” people, in contrast to the “manly” and “strong” individuals of the temperate zone. This notion, with its insidious veneer of rationality, facilitated a justification of the ideology of imperial colonization, while also discouraging permanent settlement of the European colonizers upon Indian soil.


  • History of Climate Science
  • Climate Impact: Human Health


The enormous death-rate of Europeans, tenfold higher than that of the natives, seemed to prove beyond doubt that in the struggle for life in the tropical regions, the European was defeated. (Sambon, 1898, p. 589)

The above statement by British physician W. L. Sambon, delivered in the famous Royal Geographical Society in London in 1898, indicates a perceived fragility of the colonial rulers who were inhabitants of the tropical climate of India. As the Europeans sought to extend their imperial borders on the subcontinent during the second wave of European colonization in the 18th and 19th centuries, depictions of the Indian climate as “tropical” and ideas about the “degenerative” tropics appear to have contributed to the racialized relationship between colonizer and colonized. As the Europeans began to assert themselves as players in the imperialist expansionism in Africa, India, and the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries, the issue of the climatic conditions of these geographic territories grew important, because weathering “foreign” climates became a necessary aspect of the colonial conquest and settlement, whose fate was, after all, determined by climate. Historian Philip D. Curtin argued that, following Europe’s encounter with the tropics in the 15th century, widely accepted generalizations about the tropics emerged, and, even centuries later, continued to influence European theories of empire (Curtin, 1990, p. 132). European contact with the tropics spurred the formation of distinctive notions of the interaction between climate and culture, and prolonged experience of the tropics gradually transformed and consolidated these impressions. The initial awe and exoticism surrounding new tropical lands in the late 15th century gave way by the mid-18th century to negative associations with danger, pestilence, and even death. These assumptions about the “tropics” connected with, and informed, notions about the distinctiveness of each climatic belt, namely the “vibrancy” of the temperate zone against the “decadence” of the hot tropical conditions, along with other inventive speculations. The major assumption in the “discourse of tropicality” was the belief in the inherent inferiority of the tropics and “in the primitivism of the social and cultural systems to which the tropics gave rise” (Arnold, 2000, p. 7). Adaptation to the unfamiliar climates of the tropics was critical to the fate of permanent European colonies; therefore, acclimatization was critical.

This concern was dominant in the proliferation of the discourse on heat, humidity, and the climate, which was a lengthy and diverse discourse expanding into what Naraindas termed a “moral meteorology” (Naraindas, 1996, p. 32). As Grove wrote, by the end of the 18th century, the rapid spread of information about the natural history and ethnology of the newly colonized lands founded a “whole set of academics and scientific societies based throughout the colonial world” (Grove, 1995, p. 8). Many of these societies debated the anxieties over the effects of climate upon health, even hastening a revival of Hippocratic ideas surrounding climatic determinism. The reappearance of these ideas further stimulated an existing and popular European engagement with the tropics during the 19th century. Such studies in the name of science underpinned the Western public’s moralistic principles of a racialized tropics.

This article addresses the ways in which the colonial normative discourse encouraged an ever-growing field of authoritative knowledge production pertaining to the tropical world, while also exploring how these narratives informed perceptions about British colonial India, imagined in Anglo-Indian medical and topographical narratives during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The article undertakes a historical study of the origins and development of the idea of the “tropics.” The study then proceeds to investigating how these ideas were utilized to redefine India’s climatic attributes in order to facilitate colonial subjugation.

The Location of the Tropics

The Greek root of the word tropics is derived from tropikós, meaning a “turning, which refers both to the rotations of the spheres and the notions of limits, both natural and moral” (Driver, 2004, p. 2). According to the Online Oxford English Dictionary, the astronomical definition of tropic is “each of two corresponding circles on the celestial sphere where the sun appears to turn after reaching its greatest declination, marking the northern and southern limits of the ecliptic” (definition retrieved from The tropics generally are defined as two parallels of latitude stretching around the Earth, one 23°27 north of the equator and the other 23°27 south of the equator, together defining the boundary of the region in which the sun may shine directly overhead (Driver, 2004, p. 2). In even more general terms, the tropics are regions of the Earth that lie roughly in the middle of the globe. The zone that lies between the latitude lines of the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn has been historically known as the “torrid zone,” and it comprises the equator and parts of North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. In present times, a large portion of the world’s population inhabit the hot and wet tropics, which have been defined by the acclaimed French geographer Pierre Gourou as “an area of 36 million km², 7 million in Asia and the East Indies, 2 million in Melanesia, Australia, and Oceania, 13 million in Africa, and 14 million in America” (Gourou, 1947/1980, p. 2). Approximately half of all tropical land surfaces can be classified as humid, with rates of annual rainfall equaling or exceeding those of evapotranspiration (Kellman & Tackaberry, 1997, p. 1). In geographic terms, then, to be “tropical,” a region should have “a mean temperature of 18°C in the coolest month, and a mean annual rainfall of 500 mm” (Gourou, 1947/1980, p. 2).

It was between the 17th and the early 20th centuries that the notion of tropics gained popularity, aided by a host of travel literature, commercial enterprises, and of course scientific exploration. European interest in territorial expansionism further aroused curiosity about the tropics among European naturalists, climatologists, and physicians. Alfred R. Wallace (1878), the prominent British naturalist, divided the earthly territoriality on the basis of climatic conditions into three divisions, “the tropical, the temperate, and the frigid zones” (p. 2). He explained what constituted the “tropical” climate, or, in his view, the “equatorial zone” as:

that portion of the globe which extends for about twelve degrees on each side of the equator, in which all the chief tropical phenomena dependent on astronomical causes are most fully manifested, and which we may distinguish [as the] “equatorial zone.” (p. 3)

In terms of medical geography then, it is essentially the hot and wet regions that comprise the tropics. Being in the “tropical” zone thus meant that “the nearer one got to the equator the less would be the degree of cold experienced during any period of the year” (Hull, 1871, p. 48). According to Wallace, the extreme hot conditions of the tropics were caused by

the constant high temperature of the soil and of the surface-waters of the ocean— the great amount of aqueous vapour in the atmosphere—the great extent of the intertropical regions which cause the winds that reach the equatorial zone to be always warm—and the latent heat given out during the formation of rain and dew. (1878, p. 7)

The terms tropics and warm climates were used by scientists interchangeably to denote extensive humid regions, such as the Mediterranean, West Africa, Southern China, Australia, the Caribbean islands, and a large part of South America, including Brazil. The word tropical had not been applied to India before 1780, and from the 1840s onward it became “an important semantic and scientific device for locating India in a world divided along temperate/tropical lines” (Arnold, 1998, p. 6). Increasingly, the term began to describe the area within the Indian subcontinent that lay to the south of the Tropic of Cancer and identifiable by its humidity, dampness, and oppressive conditions. However, tropical India was mostly associated with heat. Indeed, as Naraindas argued, what distinguished the tropics as “other” in the 19th century was its climate; the heat and humidity of the climate set the tropics apart from the temperate (Naraindas, 1996, p. 32). This heat was dreaded by the English colonials. Their anxiety about tropical heat is exemplified in the work of Wallace (1878), who reflected on the difference between hot tropical India and the temperate northern European region:

There is another important difference between the temperate and tropical zones, in the direct heating effect of the sun’s ray independently of altitude. In England the noonday sun in the month of June rarely inconveniences us or produces any burning of the skin; while in the tropics, at almost any hour of the day, and when the sun has an elevation of only 40° or 50°, exposure to it for a few minutes will scorch a European so that the skin turns red, becomes painful, and often blisters or peels off. Almost every visitor to the tropics suffers from incautious exposure of the neck, the leg, or some other part of the body to the sun’s rays, which there possess a power as new, as it is at first sight inexplicable, for it is not accompanied by any extraordinary increase in the temperature of the air. (p. 7)

Tropical Paradise or “White Man’s Graveyard”?

Apart from the topographic descriptions, the tropics in European understanding were also being associated with some specific environmental and cultural attributes. Along with the expansion and discovery of unrevealed territories in unfamiliar surroundings, ideas about tropicality were also being formed. The most prevalent rendering about the tropics, as described by Curtin, was the “myth of tropical exuberance,” which could be identified with the region’s assumed lush greenery, abundant vegetation, and exotic fruits and animals (1990, p. 132). Chronicles of early European travelers and merchants further helped to spread the idea about tropical abundance and affluence. Colonial expansionism was partly driven by the “promise” of the bountiful tropics, and this eventually created a “situation in which the tropical environment was increasingly utilized as the symbolic location for the idealized landscapes and aspirations of the Western imagination” (Grove, 1995, p. 3). The supposed endless bounty of the tropics helped to propagate the image of a “paradise” where people survived effortlessly without hard labor, a land in stark opposition to the freezing winters of temperate Europe. It was the general perception that, living among such copiousness, the inhabitants of the tropics did not need to labor and could enjoy an equitable warm climate all year round, “a vision all the more alluring when contrasted with a Europe still ravaged by famine, warfare and disease” (Arnold, 1997, p. 306). The tropics, especially the islands of the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific, were perceived as an earthly paradise, a veritable Garden of Eden (Arnold, 2000, p. 7).

Early writings on tropical lavishness engaged in what has been termed an “Edenic Discourse” (Livingstone, 2002, p. 161). Indeed, various scientific and popular accounts described the tropics as invigorating and possessing an unfamiliar charm, rendering it an ideal escape from the cultural conventions of Europe. This “affirmative tropicality” also combined a taste for the picturesque as well as the scientific (Arnold, 1998, p. 3). The most prominent person on the list of tropical connoisseurs is the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). Humboldt, a proponent of romantic philosophy and sciences, was a strong believer in the fundamental unity of the natural world, which he described as a “harmoniously ordered whole” where “all-natural forces are linked together, and made mutually dependent upon each other” (Humboldt, 1849, Vol. I, pp. 1–2). He discovered in the tropics a harmonious positivity of humanity in nature. In his Personal Narrative of Travels to Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799–1804, Humboldt described the Araya peninsula located in northern Venezuela as comprising “all the wonders of the physical world” (Humboldt & Bonpland, 1818, Vol. III, p. 2). He was of the opinion that the phenomenon of tropicality was enhanced precisely because of the typicality of its conditions, which made the tropics rather imposing. He wrote:

In torrid zone under the influence of an atmosphere continually loaded with vapours, . . . every object assumes a more majestic and picturesque character; the soil, watered by springs, is furrowed in every direction; trees of gigantic loftiness, and covered with lianas, rise from the ravins; their bark, black and burnt by the double action of the light and the oxygen of the atmosphere.

(Humboldt & Bonpland, 1818, Vol. III, pp. 9–10)

His ground-breaking observation-based study of the tropics ushered in a new wave of scientific enquiry that inspired many to venture into the unknown tropical lands, including Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913). Humboldt also influenced colonists in India, who engaged in scientific research after the Humboldtian model between 1820 and 1860 (Arnold, 1998, p. 4). One may argue that many sojourners in India, particularly from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century, shared a Humboldtian passion for the tropics.

Significantly, curiosity about tropical India often crossed the gender boundary, and it was not limited to the male population. A new passion for landscape painting of the tropics arose among female European travelers, many of whom captured on canvas and paper the exotic flora and fauna that they encountered on their travels to India. Maria Graham (1785–1842), for instance, arrived in India with her father, Rear Admiral, George Dundas, the head of the naval works at the British East India Company’s dockyard in Bombay, and recorded her fascination for the tropical isle of Bombay (now Mumbai) in her Journal of a Residence in India (1812). She maintained that the primary reason for her writing was to record her impressions of the spectacle that India offered (Graham, 1813, p. v). Fascinated by the view of the land stretching beyond the Malabar point, Graham wrote:

The whole island lay to the north and east, beautifully green with the young rice, varied with hills and woods, and only separated from Salsette and the Mahratta shore by narrow arms of the sea, while the bay and harbour to the south, scattered with beautiful woody islands, reflected the grand monsoon clouds, which, as they rolled along, now hid and now discovered the majestic forms of the ghauts on the mainland. (1813, p. 10)

Similarly, Fanny Parks (1794–1875), who ventured into India with her husband, stationed in Calcutta during the 1820s, found delight in her first sight of a coconut tree, which she saw in Car Nicobar (the most northern of the Nicobar Islands):

The island where we landed was covered to the edge of the sand of the shore with beautiful trees; scarcely an uncovered or open spot was to be seen. Off the ship the village appeared to consist of six or eight enormous beehives, erected on poles and surrounded by high trees; among these, the cocoa-nut, to an English eye, was the most remarkable. (1850, Vol. 1, p. 14)

Although Parks’ inquisitiveness about tropical India lacked any scientific basis, her illustrative descriptions of the natural beauty represented the current interest in tropicality, a vision that changed for the worse after the Great Rebellion of 1857 (also known as the Indian Mutiny). Incidentally, Lady Charlotte Canning (1817–1861), the wife of Charles Canning, the Governor General of India during the Sepoy Rebellion, an acclaimed artist and botanist, caught malaria while collecting plant samples in Darjeeling (a hill station in West Bengal, India) and died a few days before her scheduled departure to England in 1862. Lady Canning had been captivated by the diversity of the flora and fauna of tropical India and filled nineteen volumes of journals with her water-color illustrations. Therefore, the “Humboldtian delight” in the tropics had an enduring legacy and created a new genre of tropical aficionados. J. S. Duncan remarked that, “landscapes never have a single meaning; there always exists the possibility of different readings” (1990, p. 182). Therefore, it would be erroneous to assume that the tropics subscribed to any single form of myth. The “northern idea of the tropics” habitually presented the tropics as a disease-ridden realm where the alien Europeans were in mortal danger. Tropicality was outlined in the experiences and impressions of the Europeans as a setting completely different in its climate, topography, inhabitants, and, of course, ailments. Indeed, Europe’s notions about tropics contained “a duality that made the tropics appear as much pestilential as paradisiacal” (Arnold, 2000, p. 8). As colonizing attempts led to settlement, it was realized that the extremities of the tropical climate proved to be a major obstacle, particularly with respect to West Africa and the West Indies, which were largely seen as the “white man’s grave” (Curtin, 1961, p. 94). Hence, along with its opulence, there also existed an unmistakable “menace” in the tropics. From the mid-18th century onward, European accounts portrayed the tropics in a negative light. The danger of disease and death invariably lurked behind the luxury and abundance of India and other tropical lands. As enigmatic as they were, the tropics contained the threat of ferocious animals like tigers, blood-sucking worms and pests, natural disasters (such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and unpredictable thunderstorms), and, of course, life-threatening diseases, such as malaria, cholera, and yellow fever. It was believed that the humid conditions of the tropics, combined with their high temperatures, led to the rapid decay of plant and animal matter, exuding larger quantities of noxious and disease-causing fumes (Pols, 2018, p. 3). There were, furthermore, the mercurial weather conditions (including the heat, moisture during the monsoon, and the sudden temperature drop in the evenings), the dew, the dust, the stench of open sewers, and the overcrowding in cities and towns, which were all linked with pestilence, illnesses, and untimely deaths of the European colonials. Indeed, by the second half of the 18th century, with the surge in imperial assertion over the plantation economies of the West Indies, a new breed of French and English medical practitioners began to focus on the vulnerability of the European constitution in the disease-ridden tropical climate (Arnold, 2000, p. 9). Between 1815 and 1914, the tropics witnessed a crucial century of what has been described as the “mortality revolution” (Curtin, 1989, p. xiii). The mortality rate of Europeans in the tropics was perceived to be much higher than at home. Despite the assurance of quick money, 18th-century India, with its disease-laden environment, proved equally life threatening to the Europeans. The “environmental theory of disease,” as Thomas Metcalf termed it, demarcated India, with its strange plants and animal life and extreme heat and miasmatic conditions, as an exotic and dangerous space (1995/2017, p. 171). Hence, a wide range of medical literature began to expound increasingly on the potentially hazardous and virulent effects of the tropics. Despite the diversity in tropical landmass, it was generally acknowledged that there was a homogeneity among tropical disease-laden environs. The hot and damp tropics produced lethal miasmas, which people from the temperate climate of Europe had never experienced before.

“In Health and Sickness”—Surviving in the Tropics

Locating tropicality led to delineating the boundaries of cultural affirmations of the land and its people. As indicated by Arnold, the “tropical” concept was a “social construct” and an “especially potent and prevalent form of othering” that “became a Western way of defining something environmentally and culturally distinct from Europe” (1998, p. 2). The tropical environs and their people represented, in the perception of the British colonials, a peculiar realm of extremities; it was conceptually the “other” of the European world. The “otherization” of the tropics predated Edward Said’s view of Orientalism (1978) as a social and cultural construct in Western observation. Long before the Saidian interpretation of Orientalism, the West had been pitted against the East in matters of climate, too. Tropicality was more than a geographic entity; it “signified a place of radical otherness to the temperate world, with which it contrasted and which it helped constitute” (Stepan, 2001, p. 17). The cultural symbolism of the tropics and tropical inhabitants was regularly propagated and popularized by most medical practitioners and naturalists. Indeed, a whole gamut of representative colonial literature about the tropics was fashioned, including fictional representations. As Warwick Anderson surmised,

In medical texts, geographical reports, and popular literature, “tropical” was positioned against “temperate”; “wilderness” against “civilization”; “promiscuity” against “restraint”; and in a racial summation of these dichotomies, “colored” contrasted with “white.” (2005, p. 73)

This is an intrinsic part of the way that Europeans perceived, and sought to gain control over, a large part of the globe (Arnold, 2003, p. 5). It was deemed that the Europeans should take advantage of the prodigal land of the tropics and exert their influence over the people therein. As European expansion unfolded, expedient definitions of the tropics produced historically specific geographies that structured designs of conquest, settlement, and exploitation (Asaka, 2017, p. 6).

Nonetheless, this degeneration associated with tropicality was a narrative that was witnessed even in the writings of the Enlightenment thinkers. The ordering of this othering was also a part of the larger Enlightenment attempt to understand the part of the world that existed beyond European consciousness. Golinski argued that climate featured prominently in Enlightenment accounts of national character and historical progress that related specific customs and institutions to the environmental conditions in which people lived (2007, p. 5). Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), for instance, debated the effects of heat and cold on nerve fibers, which in his opinion were responsible for the respective character formation of different countries. In his discussion “Of the Difference of Men in Different Climates” in Spirit of Laws (1748/1752), he pointed out the effects of the cold air on the “external fibers of the body,” which apparently “increases their elasticity” and “consequently it increases also their force.” People are “therefore more vigorous in cold climates’ [and] brave” and also have “a greater boldness, that is, more courage; a greater sense of superiority,” unlike the inhabitants of the “warm countries,” who were largely viewed by Montesquieu as “old men[and] timorous” (Montesquieu, 1748/1752, p. 246).

Indeed, beginning with the ancient Greeks and Romans, health and environment had been inseparably allied in Western scientific comprehension. In Western medicine, the relationship between health and climate was first evoked by the Greek physician Hippocrates (460–377 BCE). The Hippocratic theory of humoral pathology was based on the idea that human bodies have four important fluids or humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. (Because of this belief, humoral pathology is also called the “Hippocratic doctrine of four humors.”) Each humor was stated to have its own complexion. For instance, blood is hot and wet, phlegm is cold and wet, black bile is cold and dry, and yellow bile is hot and dry (Lloyd, Hippocratic Writings, 1950/1983, p. 264). The Hippocratic corpus thus asserted, “In men, all diseases are caused by bile and phlegm. Bile and phlegm give rise to diseases when they become too dry or too wet or too hot or too cold in the body” (1950/1983, p. 25). Similarly, the internal organs, such as liver, brain, spleen, lungs, and gallbladder, have their own peculiar complexions along with their specific humors. Thus, to cure an illness, one firstly determines the imbalances in complexion and proceeds to treatment. The Hippocratic Writings mention:

Any abnormal condition which arose purely as a result of heat or cold and into which no other factor entered at all would be resolved when a change occurred from hot to cold or vice versa.

(Lloyd, 1950/1983, p. 82)

The Hippocratic doctrine assumed that although individuals differed to a certain degree, their constitutions were determined by the dominant characteristics of the climate in which they lived. To put it in the words of the Hippocratic Writings, “the constitutions and the habits of people follow the nature of the land where they live” (p. 168). Therefore, people were susceptible to the diseases peculiar to that climate. For instance, the inhabitants of hot and humid countries were prone to certain types of fevers, while the residents of colder climes were likely to suffer more from chronic respiratory ailments. In the context of white colonization of tropical India, notions about humoral pathology were revived, and this increasingly influenced medical writings about India well into the 19th century. The classical Hippocratic corpus On Airs, Waters and Places stressed the influence of factors external to the body in causing various maladies. Health was dependent upon various climatic and environmental factors: the level of the ground, the condition of the soil, the humidity of the atmosphere, and, above all, the presence of marshes and wet ground determined the occurrence of epidemic diseases (Metcalf, 1995/2017, p. 171).

The Indian climate, along with its peculiar ailments, was described by the Europeans as a hazardous place, dangerous to the European constitution. It is noteworthy that, initially, much of the characterization of the typical Indian climate was born out of the English experience of Bengal and more particularly of Calcutta, the first colonial city of British creation. Until 1911, Calcutta had been the administrative headquarters of British India, and, not surprisingly, the British were most familiar with it. The marshy surroundings of Bengal and Calcutta, with their dampness and humidity, were increasingly associated with the notions of tropicality and with deadly diseases like malaria and cholera. The identification of Bengal as what typically constituted the “tropical” had much to do with the work of James Johnson, whose famous monograph The Influence of Tropical Climates on European Constitution (1813) posited the marshy Gangetic delta as the ideal ground for the tropical disease-generating “miasmas.” Following Johnson there was a spurt in medical treatises concerning the preservation of British health in tropical India: John McCosh (1841) wrote Medical Advice to the Indian Stranger, while James Ranald Martin incidentally rewrote and extended Johnson’s The Influence of Tropical Climates on European Constitution (1856). The list also includes W. J. Moore’s A Manual of Family Medicine for India (1877), Thomas King Chambers’ A Manual of Diet in Health and Disease (1875), George W. Thomson’s The Preservation of Health in the Tropical Climates (1878), S. Leigh Hunt and Alexander S. Kenny’s On Duty under a Tropical Sun (1882), G. Sherman Bigg’s The Anglo-Indian’s Health Abroad and at Home (1887), Pardey Lukis and R. J. Blackham’s Tropical Hygiene for Anglo-Indians (1914), and W. J. Simpson’s The Maintenance of Health in the Tropics (1916).

Some manuals were written specifically for the care of infants and memsahib sojourners in India, such as R. S. Mair’s Supplement on the Management of Children in India in his Medical Guide for Anglo-Indians (1874), S. Leigh Hunt and Alexander S. Kenny’s Tropical Trials: A Hand-Book for Women in the Tropics (1883), Mrs. Howard Kingscote‘s The English Baby in India and How to Rear It (1893), G. Mellin’s The Care of Infants in India (1909), and Kate Platt‘s The Home and Health in India and the Tropical Colonies (1923). British women and children, it was generally assumed, were more vulnerable to the damaging consequences of the tropical climate and needed to exercise extra precautions. The enthusiasm about preserving Anglo-Indian health signified the European perception of the disease-infused tropical climate of India. The medical manuals further added to the already burgeoning knowledge of India’s “tropicality” and its ill effects. This, then, “provides a telling example of how texts informed ideas and expectations even before Europeans set foot in the Tropics” (Arnold, 1998, p. 8).

Tropicality and the Myth of the “Sluggish” Native

Climate was then one of the fundamental markers by which differentiation between the temperate zone and the tropics was particularized. The tropics were imagined as being different from what was considered “natural” by the Europeans and hence were not only “different” but also “degrading” in the European view. The very idea that there existed a group of people who did not belong to the human family that originated from Adam and Eve made them fundamentally “unnatural” and hence “below the original condition of God’s creation” (Curtin, 1990, p. 133). Thus, a large part of the globe did not conform to European standards of “being human.” This outlook then also questioned the common origin of humans (i.e., monogenism, the biblical belief in the unity of all humans as spelled out in the book of Genesis). Such an understanding of “difference stressed heredity and the innate, unalterable characteristics of the ‘races’ of Mankind” (Harrison, 1999, p. 12). The emerging perception of differences among humans during the 17th and 18th centuries encouraged the revival of Hippocratic doctrines that described the cultural differences between temperate and tropical climes. The Hippocratic corpus argued that heat and humid conditions had reduced the Asiatic people to “cowards” and rendered them “lethargic”:

A variable climate produces a nature which is coupled with a fierce, hot-headed and discordant temperament, for frequent fears cause a fierce attitude of mind, whereas quietness and calm dull the wits. Indeed, this is the reason why the inhabitants of Europe are more courageous than those of Asia. . . . Calm and an easy-going way of living increase cowardice; distress and pain increase courage. That is the one reason for the more warlike nature of Europeans. (Lloyd, 1950/1983, p. 167)

Thus, in the Hippocratic tradition, human nature and character was inextricably linked with climatic conditions. This Hippocratic linkage between climatic surroundings and human nature naturally influenced later writings on India, too, particularly to demarcate the distinctions between the East and the West. Warwick Anderson rightly observed that “‘tropicalisms’ shaped European self-perceptions, enhancing a sense of cold-climate virility and vigor and intimately associating whiteness with civility” (2005, p. 74).

The distinctiveness of tropical environs, including their inhabitants, was almost invariably explained in a depraved manner, whereby the “superior” disposition of the European white race was clearly established. Eric Jennings mentioned how the “scientific racists asserted that climate conditioned racial degeneration, fragility, or supremacy” (2006, p. 12). The process of othering inevitably entailed several contrasts, for instance, in this case, temperate Europe versus tropical Africa, America, and India. Representing Europe as “progressive” and “civilized” required tropical people to be portrayed as “savages,” “backward,” and “decadent.” This duality was regularly invoked by the European scholars to delineate the difference between the tropics and the temperate environs. Climate thus played a pivotal role, particularly when two contrasting cultures were placed against each other. Henry Drummond, for example, in his Tropical Africa (1903), described the people of East Africa in the following words: “It is a wonderful thing to look at this weird world of human beings—half animal and half children, wholly savage and wholly heathen” (p. 4). From the 18th century onward, the creation of racial theories of differentiation based on climatic determinism was a significant tool for imperialist justification. Each climatic region was responsible for carving out the distinctive constitution of the people residing there. A specific climatic region thus shaped the human constitutions peculiar to that region. There was a widespread acceptance among the medical theorists that particular races could survive only in precise climatic regions. Even though, during this initial phase, colonial medical literature was more concerned with the constitutional difference rather than stringent racial discrimination based on skin color, physicians were quite aware that there was a profound cultural difference that was shaped by the difference in climatic conditions (Harrison, 1999, p. 13). However, skin color played a role in ordering the constitutional difference between people from temperate zones and the tropical environs. The celebrated physician James Johnson (1818) discovered that the “dark” skin of an ordinary Indian boatman was better suited to combating the scorching tropical sun. As Johnson put it:

Nature has previously done a great deal, towards the security of the dandy, by forming the colour, and in some respects the texture, of his skin, in such a manner, that the extreme vessels on the surface are neither so violently stimulated by the heat, nor so easily struck torpid by sudden transitions to cold. Certain it is, that the action of the perspiratory vessels, too is different from that of the same vessels in Europeans—at least, they secrete a very different kind of fluid; being more of an oily and tenacious nature than the sweat of the latter. (p. 384)

The perspiratory gland of the Indian was particularly endowed to tolerate the extreme conditions of the tropical climate, a facility the English lacked. Thus, the English and the Indian differed in their skin color, and this difference was responsible for shaping the distinct identity of both the white man and the “dark-skinned” native Indian. Interestingly, the first sensory perception (apart from the stench) that greeted the English masters, particularly their women, was the sight of the “nakedness” of Indians. Yet, the semi-nakedness of the Indians, in the eye of the colonizer, was perceived as being masked by their skin color, as Maria Graham (1813) explained about the palanquin-bearers or carriers who had gathered on her arrival in Bombay to transport her from the port to her residence:

The palankeen-bearers are here called hamauls; they for the most part wear nothing but a turban, and a cloth wrapped round the loins, a degree of nakedness which does not shock one, owing to the dark colour of the skin, which, as it is unusual to European eyes, has the effect of dress. (p. 2)

The inability to distinguish skin color from attire perhaps grew from racial vanity and bias against the colonized “other.” Views about the nakedness of the Indians and their skins remained intact even during the latter decades of the 19th century. As E. C. P. Hull (1871) remarked regarding the scantily clothed Indians,

Probably the dark skin goes a great way towards weakening the effect, for the same degree of nudity in a white man would undoubtedly be far from reconcilable with average European ideas of propriety. (p. 38)

The Europeans were oblivious to the fact that climate, regardless of anything else, including the inability to spend unnecessarily on clothing, was the overriding reason that the ordinary natives did not overburden themselves with considerable liveries. To Europeans, the climatic difference therefore outlined the general culture of the particular society and helped to fashion their overall nature and characteristics. The ease of life in the tropics reduced the people there to be perceived as lethargic, and hence they failed to reach a “higher” degree of civilizational advancement like the Europeans of the temperate zone. Climate made the constitutions of the Indians and the British fundamentally different. In this context, climatic difference between the temperate and tropical zones became the tool to account for the variance between the colonizer and the colonized. Climate, in the colonialist’s vision, was the reason for scientific and economic advancements in Europe and the degeneration and stagnation of the East. India and other tropical countries thereby became synonymous with lethargy, effeminacy, and decay. Temperate climate, on the other hand, was believed to breed strong, independent men, full of manly vigor. Thomas Metcalf aptly suggested that tropical India, with its lazy, leisurely people, was largely seen as an enchanting land of desire lacking any self-control, where disease and sexuality were equally rampant (1995/2017, p. 173). In fact, physician W. J. Moore, in his A Manual of Family Medicine for India (1877), warned the new English arrivals to defend themselves from the “excess of mental emotion, especially fits of passion, which have been known to precede, and perhaps induce, paroxysms of fever” (p. 511). It was hence not surprising that Indians were regarded as lethargic, disobedient, indolent, and “feminine.” Robert Orme’s observation in General Idea of the Government and People of Indostan, a part of which was written in 1752 and was later included in his Historical Fragments of the Mogul Empire, published posthumously in 1805, clearly described the early British perception of the relationship between India’s climate and its people. Orme believed that the general climate of India had rendered the people there lazy and indolent.

The effect of the sun on the perspiration of the human body, together with the softness of the air, renders this secretion in India more powerful than the effect of labour in other countries. . . . Satisfied with the present sense of ease, the inhabitant of Indostan has no conception of anything salutary in the use of exercise; and receiving no agreeable sensation from it, esteems it, in those not obliged to it by necessity, ridiculous, or the effect of a discontented spirit. The general tendency to indolence being admitted, we shall find nature encouraging them in it. (1805, p. 467)

Orme commented that the climate of India had a “certain air of languor” and as a consequence “very few of the inhabitants of Indostan [were] endowed with strength, or athletic size,” and “a race of men” could be witnessed “whose make, physiognomy, and muscular strength conveyideas of an effeminacy” (p. 462). In the colonial narrative, tropical India was overwhelmingly characterized as a land of filth and pestilence where the climate was so debilitating that the mind and body were sapped of energy. It was argued that even the English who had been removed from their native lands to these tropical soils gradually lost their vitality and hence grew prone to tropical diseases: “The European transplanted to an Indian climate becomes [more] peculiarly liable to disease . . . than in his native situation” (Wallace, 1824, pp. 115–116).

Arnold rightly argued that the “history of Aryan civilization in India was increasingly told as a tale of moral and physical decline of once-white invaders falling victim to a debilitating climate and incapacitating tropical diseases” (1998, p. 10), for in such climatic conditions, Indians, who were devoid of any courage, allowed themselves to be successively dominated by “despotic” Islamic rulers. Alexander Dow (1768) conjectured that the “deplorable condition” of the Indian climate subjected the Indians to “arbitrary sway in every age,” where there was “an ample field for private ambition, and for public tyranny.” In such a situation, Dow continued, “the people permit themselves to be transferred from one tyrant to another, without murmuring” and thus the “hardy race” of the “Patan” could easily dominate the feminine Indians (Vol.1, pp. xii–xiii). Orme further elaborated on the connection between the Indian climate and the “effeminate” nature of the Indians:

Breathing in the softest of climates; having so few real wants; and receiving even the luxuries of other nations with little labour, from the fertility of their own soil; the Indian must become the most effeminate inhabitant of the globe, and this is the very point at which we now see him. (1805, p. 472)

The Bengalis were further stereotyped for their feeble, lazy, and “effeminate” ways. Herbert Risley (1908), the famous British ethnographer, remarked that Bengali effeminacy was the result of “relaxing climate,” “the enfeebling diet,” and the premature maternity of women (p. 57). Seen from a climatic discourse, therefore, there was a tendency among the Anglo-Indian scholars to accord India a homogeneous identity that invariably signified the “timid” and “frail” disposition of the Indians. Despite this, when it came time to reorganize the army following the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, the so-called “martial races” were sought after. A conscious disjuncture was maintained to characterize the supposed martial strength of certain ethnicities from northern India as opposed to the weakness of others, particularly those from Bengal. One could thus ponder whether the emphasis on climatic difference had any political considerations. Indeed, as Mrinalini Sinha observed in her seminal work Colonial Masculinity, the colonial administration’s choice of martial over nonmartial Indians was “itself implicated in the history of British imperialism” (1995, p. 8).

Therefore, the Indian climate was perceived as breeding effeminacy, while the British ruling class, who hailed from the temperate climatic zone, naturally emerged as more robust, hardy, and masculine in nature. Robert Orme, Alexander Dow, and many more after them echoed Enlightenment views on “sluggish Indians,” a situation that nevertheless could be ameliorated to some degree if the inhabitants of tropical regions could be placed under the “wiser legislator,” the European (Montesquieu, 1748/1752, p. 249). Symbolic construction of difference was then structured by climatic determinism. As Ellsworth Huntington (1915) surmised:

We all admit that race and the thing which for lack of a better name we call cultivation or training are of vital importance, but it is also true that man cannot rise to a high level except where the climate is propitious. . . . We know that the denizens of the torrid zone are slow and backward, and we almost universally agree that this is connected with the damp, steady heat. (p. 2)

These writers linked extreme heat with opulence, which they connected to despotism and corruption. Indeed, in the theory of climatic determinism, colonization found a ready basis to justify European dominance over tropical people. The differences in physical appearance, constitution, customs, and manners of particular human beings were explained in terms of climatic conditions. In the imperial experience, then, the establishment of colonialism was also justified on the grounds of variance.

The British empire was driven by the principle of the “governing race,” which emphasized the suitability of the Anglo-Saxon white race to rule others. This moral superiority gave the Britons an authority that has been described by C. A. Bayly as “an institutionalized and philosophical racism” that became a part and parcel of Britain’s imperialist ideology (1989, p. 109). Indeed, as the members of a “civilized nation,” the British regarded it as their destiny to disseminate the tenets of civilization among those they considered “savages.” In this regard, the tropical climate assisted them enormously. The concept of tropicality was created to facilitate a transnational engagement with imperial subjugation. The inhabitants of the tropical climatic zone, as considered by the English, were “degraded” precisely because of their climatic conditions. Through the continuous attention they gave to climate and to the very essence of tropicality, the colonials forged an understanding that became a component of their imperial identity. This formed the foundation of Rudyard Kipling’s ideas (1899) about the “White man’s burden”:

Take up the White Man’s burden – Send forth the best ye breed – Go bind your sons to exile To serve your captives’ need; To wait in heavy harness On fluttered folk and wild – Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.

The first stanza of Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands perhaps best summed up the imperialist ideology; the white man had an accountability toward the nonwhite people that needed to be justified through colonial subjugation and consequent civilization.

For the colonial masters, the tropical colony posed a temptation as well as a challenge: becoming acquainted with it and adjusting to it formed a complex process that was no less exciting and enduring in the midst of the empire-building. Physicians began to vigorously analyze the nature of the tropical climate because the preservation of English health in the alien conditions was of utmost concern for the sustainability of European imperialism. Many theories were proposed by the colonial medical practitioners, in an effort to make white settlement in the Indian colony feasible. Nonetheless, as Mark Harrison pointed out, during the initial days of East India Company rule, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a strongly held belief in the ability of the Europeans to acclimatize themselves to the tropicality of Indian conditions, depending on lifestyle, temperament, and peculiarities of constitution (1999, pp. v, 11). A common apprehension about the tropical disease-prone environment raised fundamental questions about ways to combat this climatic challenge. Most medical professionals believed that there was nothing inevitable about sickness in the tropics, and that much could be undertaken to prevent it. Indeed, this was the basic assumption underlying all colonial medical texts from 1770 to 1858. In other words, those who could maintain a moderate lifestyle characterized by temperance and virtue, while complying with a general degree of personal cleanliness, had a better chance of surviving the tropical climes and their associated diseases than those who indulged in extravagance.

The insidious and debilitating effects of heat may, however, be guarded against and delayed, first, by avoidance of exposure to direct heat—for the person who has suffered from sunstroke is the more liable to become affected by continued residence in a hot climate; secondly, by moderation in diet, especially as regards liquor; thirdly, by periodical change to Europe, or at least to some Indian hill station. A short periodical sojourn at some hill stations, and a change to a European climate every six or seven years, would prevent many persons’ suffering from the effects of hot climates. (Moore, 1877, p. 520)

However, by early 19th century, the acclimatization approach came under scrutiny as the focus shifted to disease prevention. The change in the focus paved the way for human agency to be identified as a plausible cause for the occurrence of illness, with consequent prioritizing of personal hygiene and the proper management of the urban and rural environments (Harrison, 1999, p. 204). Moore (1877) declared in his A Manual of Family Medicine for India that:

It cannot be too much impressed on all Europeans in India that the diseases incidental to the climate may be often escaped, or at least modified in severity, by attention to ordinary general sanitary principles and to personal hygiene, especially by those newly arrived in the country. The Anglo-Saxon race is, perhaps, above all others naturally endowed with a resisting power against the evil effects of adverse climatic influences; and this power may be materially assisted by care, and by ordinary avoidance of evident causes of disease. (pp. 510–511)

This new focus resulted in declining interest in climatic determinism and, by the late 19th century, the discovery of bacteriology raised questions about the relation between the environment and the presence of maladies. The germ theory of disease led to the identification of microbes (known as pathogens or germs) that were responsible for causing diseases. The discoveries concerning vector-borne diseases created a renewed hope for white settlement in the tropics. A new discipline, tropical medicine, sought to control the spread of tropical diseases, and its new scientific enquiry was indeed path-breaking and hence a morale booster for the proponents of colonial expansionism.


Medical science, colonial aspirations of aggrandizement, and constructed selective biological dogma, constituting the normative discourse, created convenient opportunities for varying stereotypical perceptions of the tropical world, including India. Felix Driver and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, in introducing a special issue of the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, stated:

The identification of the northern temperate regions as the normal, and the tropics as altogether other—climatically, geographically, and morally—became part of an enduring imaginative geography, which continues to shape the production and consumption of knowledge in the 21st century. (2000, p. 1)

This statement clearly delineates the lasting stereotypical impressions of tropical lands. The narratives about “tropicality” were constructed and reconstructed to evoke a perennial colonial nostalgia. The divergence between tropical and temperate lands became an accepted and potent doctrine that continues to influence popular public opinion and approaches even in present times. The theory of climatic determinism successfully incorporated within its framework an extensive range of racial, physical, and cultural signs of difference, which justified European imperial expansion and caused the climatic image of tropical India to remain unaltered in Western representation.

Indeed, the advent of the germ theory of disease did not alter the negative perception of India. Many adherents to the doctrine of climatic determinism who still retained their faith even in the later decades of the 19th century, and the early decades of the 20th century witnessed a resurgence in the climatic theory. These exponents of environmental determinism continued to claim in much sharper expository norms that a particular climate left undeniable strands of peculiarity in each race that resided in that climatic zone. India’s disease-ridden environs not only became the marker of being different from the temperate atmosphere, but also signified all that was fatal in India. Medical practitioners, scientists, climatologists, and naturalists continued to debate the effects of India’s disease-laden conditions. As pointed out by David Livingstone, “Medical diagnostics provided an additional vocabulary in which to construct the tropical world” (“Tropical Hermeneutics,” 2002, p. 76). In colonial literature, India and its “tropicality” were increasingly represented as culturally “inferior” and “uncivilized,” a symbolic metaphor that never lost its relevance. This perception of India shaped both cultural and racial understanding between the colonizer and the colonized. It was generally assumed that the “regressive” conditions of India were beyond “repair.” As Huntington put it:

Whatever may be the cause, it is generally agreed that the native races within the tropics are dull in thought and slow in action. . . . Perhaps they will change, but the fact that the Indians both of Asia and South America have been influenced so little by from one to four hundred years of contact with the white man affords little ground for hope. Judging from the past, there is scant reason to think that their character is likely to change for many generations. (1915, p. 35)

Through the continuous attention given to climate and to the very essence of tropicality, the colonials forged an understanding that became a component of their imperial identity. The racial dominance of the colonizer needed to be articulated, and in the context of climatic determinism, it became the marker of the “superior” status of the English. Indeed, the relationship between the colonizer and colonized was redefined and rearticulated along the changing imperial standpoint of environmental effects. The notion of European “superiority” vis-à-vis the Indian “degeneracy” could thus be firmly entrenched. As late as the 1940s, there was a belief among the scientists that climate had a substantial effect on human civilization. As Robert G. Stone (1941) observed in the Yearbook of Agriculture,

In spite of many contradictory opinion there is some fairly definite evidence of a scientific and historical character on the subject of the effect of tropical climates on human beings. (p. 247)

He firmly believed that a particular race of people could survive only in their specific climatic zones. Stone thus surmised:

The Negro skin is tough and withstands infection better than the white skin, which becomes soggy with continual sweating, making skin ailments hard to cure... It is observed, however, that the darker races are considerably better suited to the tropics. (pp. 255–256)

Differences between the temperate climate of Europe and the tropical climate of India thus perpetually informed and shaped idiosyncratic views about India, encouraging the legacy of climatic determinism, a never-ending illusion about India’s climate and its people.

Further Reading

  • Arnold, D. (2004). Race, place and bodily difference in early nineteenth-century India. Historical Research, 77(196), 254–273.
  • Johnson, R. (2008). Tabloid brand medicine chests: Selling health and hygiene for the British tropical colonies. Science as Culture, 17(3), 249–268.
  • Johnson, R. (2009). European cloth and British ideas of health and hygiene in tropical climates. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 83(3), 530–560.
  • Livingstone, D. N. (1999). Tropical climate and moral hygiene: The anatomy of a Victorian debate. The British Journal for the History of Science, 32(1), 93–110.
  • Livingstone, D. N. (2012). Changing climate, human evolution, and the revival of environmental determinism. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 86(4), 564–595.
  • Peet, R. (1985). The social origins of environmental determinism. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 75(3), 309–333.


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  • Arnold, D. (1998). India’s place in the tropical world, 1770–1930. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 26(1), 1–21.
  • Arnold, D. (2000). “Illusory riches”: Representations of the tropical world, 1840–1950. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 21(1), 6–18.
  • Arnold, D. (2003). Introduction. In D. Arnold (Ed.), Warm climates and Western medicine: The emergence of tropical medicine, 1500–1900 (2nd ed., pp. 1–19). Rodopi B. V.
  • Asaka, I. (2017). Tropical freedom: Climate, settler colonialism, and Black exclusion in the age of emancipation. Duke University Press.
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