Blame the climate! : Theories of Disease Circulation in British India

When the British began the colonization of India in the late 1700s they did not realise the Pandora’s box of disease they would encounter. Although disease epidemics were not unheard of in Britain at this time the topical diseases found in India were on another scale. A great many of the young British who emigrated to India never returned home, instead falling victim to a tropical disease- with cholera being one of the major hazards.


This then begs the questions why was there such a high morality rate in India?


Well now let’s adopt the mindset of the British in the 1800s; prior to the development of modern theories of contagion, bacteria and viruses medical theories of the early 1800s largely revolved around the idea of environmental causation. Essentially the Indian climate was seen as a breeding ground for the most nasty and dangerous of diseases. This idea was so strongly believed that India was often even labelled as the home, and natural breeding ground, of cholera. Bengal especially was singled out as a very dangerous environment, as it’s swiftly changing temperatures were believed to be the primary cause of disease.

map updated



The theory went as far as to dictate the health related hazards from every season; in the hot season Europeans could expect to suffer from elevated pulse rates and nervous excitability, during the rainy season this changed to the contraction of numerous fevers, and finally in the colder months hepatic diseases were the order of the day.


As the 1800s matured so too did the theories of disease causation, but the environmental theories stuck around well into the later decades of the 1800s.


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