Anthony D. Medrano (Yale-NUS College)

Of Insects and Infrastructures: Researching the Ecologies of Economic Life in the Netherlands Indies

Members of the League of Nations' Preparatory Rural Hygiene Commission (1936). Soesilo on far right (Source: Tropen Museum)

In 1935, Raden Soesilo (1892-1943), an Amsterdam-trained epidemiologist, was on leave from his laboratory in Batavia. He was in Singapore, teaching a course on malariology at the King Edward VII College of Medicine. Most of his students were doctors from India, Siam, Burma, Indochina, and the Philippines, among other places. They were part of an international and interimperial program led by the League of Nations’ Far Eastern Bureau, established in Singapore in 1925. And while the program’s presence transformed the colonial port city into a hub of epidemiological surveillance and intercultural learning, it also revealed how malaria—the very subject of the course—cut across regions and empires, engendering a sense of inter-Asia belonging.

This sense of belonging, and becoming, was reinforced through field visits. After weeks of specialized lectures, laboratory studies, and observational time spent at Singapore’s Tan Tock Seng Hospital, doctors were dispatched to the Netherlands Indies, Malaya, and Indochina, where they gained on-the-ground experience in the practices of malaria control. For the Indies, it was Soesilo who led the field study in and around Batavia. He took participants to bandeng (Chanos chanos) and gourami (Osphronemus goramy) ponds, pointing out the ways in which flora and fauna were used to control mosquito populations.

At the heart of Soesilo’s malaria work was an understanding of malaria ecology—or the habits and habitats of particular Anopheles species and the means by which these insects could be “sanitized.” From India to China, malaria constituted one of the greatest threats to economic life in monsoon Asia. As a vector-borne disease, it affected not only human productivity but also, and as a consequence, the productivity of markets, cities, ports, plantations, estates, and mines. For local workers, cosmopolitan experts, and area states, the “menace of malaria” was a real and persistent force, influencing the currents of urban society as well as the rhythms of rural agriculture.            

My project draws on the career of Soesilo to examine what we might refer to as “the ecologies of economic life” in the Netherlands Indies. As a leading participant in the Far Eastern Bureau’s malariology program in Singapore and the director of the Anti-Malaria Service in Batavia, this subaltern scientist provides an important vantage for appreciating how, and explaining why, insects and infrastructures were central to matters of production and consumption in interwar Asia. From port cities to commodity frontiers, malaria—and “engineer-made malaria” in particular—shaped the histories and futures of economic activity in ways that call critical attention to sources and stories of environmental change.

“Engineer-made malaria” was a term initially used at the League of Nations’ Intergovernmental Conference of Far-Eastern Countries on Rural Hygiene in Bandung in 1937, but one that was not without earlier iterations in monsoon Asia. Indeed, not unlike what Soesilo described as “man-made malaria” in 1935, “engineer-made malaria” resulted from infrastructural interventions such as road-building, land- and mangrove-clearing, fish pond development, quarry excavations, and housing, canal, and irrigation schemes. As Soesilo and his contemporaries saw it, human activities that transformed local environments also created—unintentionally—the conditions for certain kinds of Anopheles to thrive, thereby increasing the prevalence of malaria among rural and urban populations in the Netherlands Indies.

My project makes use of the writings and travels of Soesilo, among other sources, in order to trace the ways in which knowledge of malaria ecology was crucial to the business of malaria control in the interwar period. To this end, I have found the National Library of Indonesia a rich repository of unexpected connections. Located in Central Jakarta at Jalan Medan Merdeka Selatan No. 11, the National Library provides access to interwar-era journals, magazines, newspapers, bureau reports, and conference proceedings. For example, De Ingenieur in Nederlandsch-Indie, a monthly organ of the Netherlands Indies branch of the Royal Institute of Engineers, has been an especially useful source for me. Within the pages of this prestigious yet obscure technical journal, published out of Bandung from 1934 to 1942, I have been able to find references that not only capture the designs and interventions of colonial development, but also speak to what Soesilo called “man-made malaria.” Similarly, the National Library maintains a wide collection of science- and health-related journals that have proven to be quite fruitful. In particular, I have found sources such as Mededeelingen van den Dienst der Volksgezondheid in Nederlandsch-Indie, Mededeelingen van den Burgerlijken Geneeskundigen Dienst in Nederlandsch-Indie, and Geneeskundig Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch-Indie productive for charting the rise and evolution of malariology in the Netherlands Indies. Perhaps most critically, and rewarding, these prewar serials have allowed me to locate Soesilo’s place within this history and the histories of malaria ecology and malaria control more broadly.              

July 2019