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Empire, Epidemics and Visions of Racial Apocalypse

The Precursors of Contemporary Xenophobia

In 1973, Jean Raspail, a French traveller and occasional diplomat wrote and published The Camp of Saints. This work — the title of which is drawn from a verse from the Book of Revelations in which the Devil’s horde surrounds the city of God’s own people before being devoured in heavenly flame — prophecies an earthly end of days for Western civilization, borne out by an advancing and sudden wave of global immigration from Asia and Africa to Europe and North America. Raspail confronts us with two prime evils: a faceless migrant mass, arriving via boat to the shores of Europe from India and crossing the Russia/China border, and the non-white Christian populations of Europe and America who are unassimilated to western values. These groups, together, threaten to overwhelm and eradicate the last vestiges of western culture and its heritages. Supporting this professed mass are the multicultural and liberal members of government, academia, and the media who waffle over the need to aid these peoples and accept them into their western nations. These actors are depicted quite literally as false prophets, living fat and bloated upon the opulence of western society and market capitalism, unable and unwilling to see the hazards presented by such a mass immigration. Ultimately, Western Europe falls to this wave of immigration as the author plays out the tropes associated with migrants we often hear in xenophobic circles — the unassimilable masses rape and kill much of the population, interracial marriage depletes the meretricious purity of the great houses of Europe, and the anonymous, dehumanized mass, uncaring and unsympathetic to all that Western civilization has given it, devours both the West and itself. Similar racist concerns have been voiced in the run up to the German election as well as in UKIP campaigning for the EU Referendum in the UK.

In the numerous violent clashes the book depicts, like the one in which Belgian soldiers stationed in consular offices in India massacre thousands of advancing migrants, murder is depicted in orgiastic fashion while officers recite the victories of great conquerors past to raise morale — tales of crusading knights slaying for Christendom, colonial armies quelling the Mau Mau rebellion, slaughtering Viet Cong, and suppressing Algerian revolt. These furiously written moments read like a melancholic obituary to a European eugenic order left stillborn after the fall of European Imperialism and the Third Reich.

So why is this hateful little novel from the 1970s critical to contextualizing current racially motivated and anti-immigration populist movements? In 2011, this lesser known book with a cult following was published in its eighth edition in France and reached number five on the nation’s bestseller list. Steve Bannon, the former advisor to President Trump and architect of this year’s spate of travel bans, now back leading the right wing media company Breitbart, has frequently employed the book’s title to describe European migration and asylum-seeking. On Breitbart News Daily on January 19, 2016, Bannon, as host, invoked the book to describe projections of future global immigration: “It’s really an invasion. I call it the Camp of the Saints.”

While it may seem unsurprising that an espoused right wing, anti-immigrant figure would gravitate to such a text, where do the racialized logics behind works such as Camp of Saints emerge and what are the modes through which they continue to operate? What makes the image of White western civilizational apocalypse such an enduring theme? To think through the modern phenomenon of the ideologies espoused in Camp of Saints we must first explore its antecedents. The racist visions that Raspail channels in his hateful novel derive not from right-wing prophesizing, but are entwined within the roots of a much longer history of racist anxiety over international migration, which was manifested earlier in regimes of disease control.

Migration, Disease, and Imperial Demise:

A notable excerpt from within Camp of Saints depicts the “refugee fleet” sailing across the oceans, those onboard dying of communicable disease, ultimately making impossible the use of the world’s seaways for commercial traffic.

“Avoid all possible contact with refugee fleet. Present position assumed as follows…” Of all the captains who received that command, not one failed to see that this forced retreat was a retreat of the conscience. Theirs was being protected, and they rushed to obey. Seafarers that they were, they knew the impossible and hopeless when they saw it: Let one typhoon blast those rotting wrecks, with their million starving creatures strewn over the water, tangling in their tunics and waiting to die, and every last ship in the Western World, brought together by some kind of miracle, still couldn’t save even the hundredth part! And at what a price to try! All useful commercial traffic halted. Crews stunned by the sight of an ocean of corpses. Fine merchant ships turned Samaritan craft, floating hospitals left to days on end of aimless ‘drifting. [sic] And for what? For life? Not even! For death. Death, seeping its way deep into the Western marrow… (pg. 24-25)

While this particular vision may seem like it emerged unique from this work of fiction, a preoccupation with exactly this sort of phenomenon vexed nineteenth-century imperial bureaucrats charged with establishing the earliest regulations for infectious disease control. As various European, Ottoman, and Persian empires expanded across much of the world, it became much more connected by trade and through shipping. Political and economic prosperity in imperial centers became ever more dependent upon the cheap materials extracted through violent and coercive labor in foreign colonies.

Two events, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the advent of the telegraph in the 1840s, made almost instant global communication a reality while shortening the shipping time between South and South East Asia and Europe.[1] The shipping of agricultural goods drastically reduced the price of food in imperial centers and, for empires like the French and British, trading with their own colonies became more economically important and lucrative than trading with other nations. However, in the eyes of Europe this increased temporal proximity with satellites produced a rising anxiety and a call to control the manner through which international trade and travel was managed. Chief amongst these concerns was the potential for disease transmission through the bounties of colonial exploit. Where the spread of disease previously threatened the localities in which it arose, the rapid movement of goods and people raised the possibility not only for disease to spread rapidly, but also for the economic system built upon swift global trade to collapse.

Quarantine, the practice of holding infected goods and peoples at ports until the disease subsides, had become too costly a procedure in a period where the rapid delivery of perishable agricultural products or raw materials was necessary. Further, the emplacement of quarantine was seen as an act of economic protectionism in the larger battle between European empires. Foreign vessels could be detained and goods destroyed under the premise of sanitation where there may not have been any biological risk. With the increased pace of trade and communication however, diseased people and goods could be surveilled and stopped at their point of departure, shifting the burden of quarantine from Europe to colonial port cities.

Epidemics became, in the era of global trade, biological threats of global proportions, capable of destabilizing imperial economic orders. This threat was perceived as so severe that the spread of disease came to represent an apocalyptic event. Concerning the possibility of the spread of plague, the Governor of Ceylon in 1897 suggested that its arrival could spell the end of the colony itself: “If the plague broke out at Colombo, most vessels would doubtless cease to call there, and there would be no means, except at excessively high freight of exporting tea and other produce. This would mean disaster if not ruin.”[2]

As cholera spread in much of Western Europe throughout the mid-nineteenth century, wiping out hundreds of thousands in cities such as Moscow and London, concerns for halting the disease at its source (then thought to be India) became a principle focus. At the International Sanitary Conference of 1894, the delegates turned their attention to producing an effective convention to limit the spread of cholera through globally binding regulations. Epidemiologists of the time argued that,

The danger to Europe from an epidemic of cholera, primarily, depends upon the periodical migration of large bodies of the Mussulmans from India, the natural habitat of the cholera germ…The majority of these pilgrimages are made by vast hordes of people, the greater number of whom are poor and feeble, or actually sick and all are accustomed to filthy habits… the problem of preventing epidemics of cholera in Europe could only be solved by subjecting these pilgrims to rigid regulations.[3]

The regulations were devised on the basis of racialized and sanitary conceptions of a Muslim “other” and the threat of their untrammeled movement into and across European spaces. This produced unique forms of racial segregation across Africa and Asia. These anxieties emerged from the conception of contagion not only as an epidemiological disaster, but also as a threat to the entire global economic social order, capable of destabilizing empire and, in the racialized visions of both Jean Raspail and the drafting agents of the International Sanitary Conventions, destroying their conception of Western civilization as they knew it.

What the linking of the International Sanitary Conventions and Camp of Saints tells us is profound. The framers of these early health regulations recognized the deep interconnectedness of the world and that without colonial exploitation, the world economy benefitting from it would fail. What Raspail fails to grasp through his colonial aphasia[4] — the occlusion of imperial histories and misremembering — is that the Western culture which he so cherishes was never the product of a hermetically sealed white order, but was built upon the backs of those unnamed hordes he kills with impunity in his novel. The fear of racial apocalypse ignores these legacies. Those “faceless masses” in Camp of Saints were always already present in the West: either physically, or in the invisible labor behind the products of empire, omnipresent as “the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea”.

Alexandre White is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Boston University, where he studies international responses to epidemic outbreaks.

Footnotes

[1] Harrison, Mark. 2013. Contagion: How Commerce Has Spread Disease. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[2] Ridgeway, Joseph West. 1897. “Letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, The Right Honorable Joseph Chamberlain M.P. from Ceylon Governor Joseph West Ridgeway Concerning Despatch No.257.”FO 83/1641. National Archives at Kew, London.

[3] Quoted in Smith, (pg. 95). S. 1894 “International Sanitary Conference.” Journal of Social Science; New York 32:92–111.

[4] Stoler, A. L. 2011. “Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France.” Public Culture 23, no. 1: 121–56.

 

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Alexandre White

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