The visual illustration of Hansen’s disease played a significant role in legitimizing colonial policy on tropical diseases, in general, and on HD in particular, in British Malaya. Employing theories of postcolonial histories of medicine and historical studies of colonial visual culture, the paper weaves a story of the medical imaging of HD and the place of images in formulating colonial policy. Instead of using images of HD as an immediate evidence of history, this paper problematizes the visuals themselves by situating them in the context of colonialism, politics of segregation and global migration of Chinese and Tamil laborers in British Malaya.
The imaging of HD in British Malaya may be classified into three broad genres. In the earliest stage, HD portraits produced in the late nineteenth century were images of suffering and despair that not only pathologized the colonial racial others but also racialized HD. Images of Hansenites and HD reflect the anxieties of European physicians who re-encountered leprosy, a disease that had long disappeared from Europe since the Middle Ages. By the 1920s, however, portraits of Hansenites were no longer confined to images of suffering. Instead, Hansenites were portrayed as faces of hope to illustrate the effectiveness of the newly found treatment of HD. By the mid-1930s, after the establishment of a central institution for HD in Sungai Buloh, Malaysia, the happy faces of the Hansenites were used to provide the compulsory segregation of HD with a philanthropic face and in doing so, expounded the achievement of colonial medicine.