The occluded root: how modern war was waged upon old healing arts

by Rahul Goswami

In every market-street in the city of Bombay (which later came to be called Mumbai), and outside most of the larger and busier commuter railway stations, sat vendors of medicinal plants and herbs. There were usually no more than two or three at each market centre. They would spread their collection on a sheet of some kind, sometimes a heavy cloth, like a rough sheep’s wool blanket, or a light fabric itself spread upon a bamboo mat, both of which could be rolled up for transport and to protect the herbals. These were a variety of leaves complete with stems, thistles or nettles, seeds of different colours and dimensions, some plants entire with their roots too. A few vendors would bring along with them small bottles (these were made to the old nip measure, and had once contained liquor) and powders, and their regular buyers seemed to know what the dark liquids and coarse powders were.

The vendors sold medicinal plants and herbs, some of which, I only much later came to understand, were part of the Indian ayurvedic materia medica, and others that were not but were indeed part of indigenous lists of healing herbs. For many in Bombay, the medicinal herb sellers were a reminder, not entirely welcome, of an India that should not have intruded this far into the present. For we now had modern hospitals with their modern doctors, modern equipment and modern methods.

But the vendors did have customers. That’s why they were there. And until the years when municipal authorities began discouraging them from sitting in the spots they were accustomed to, and then outright driving them away, the herb vendors made the journey to the city to serve these customers. Some were conversant with the small sheaves of leaves, others with the seeds and berries, and still others with the potions and powders. Having spent my growing-up years in Bombay, I knew where the vendors sat, but beyond a few halting conversational enquiries about one or the other plant, learnt little more than what my eyes had already observed.

If there was one quality that the herb sellers seemed to share, it was that they spoke little to anyone who had no foreknowledge about the little botanical piles and collections on their sheets. I did learn just enough to conclude that most vendors travelled to the city – irregularly, some two or three times a week, some once – from the villages that lay beyond its hilly margins. There they collected all that they either brought whole, or which they dried and powdered, or sublimated and reduced into tinctures and tonics. A few of their customers would, if not in a hurry themselves to either rush into the railway station or rush towards the crowded bus terminus, condescend to give me a sentence or two in explanation. This works well against malaria. This is for a skin ailment. This is for women’s ailments. And so on.

Many years later, while on a visit to South Africa, I spied exactly the same scene in small settlements along the major highways between Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. There too, vendors of herbs and medicinal plants arranged themselves comfortably for the day with their collection placed upon a sheet on the ground. And there too, they had been removed from the cityscapes, probably because of the same discrimination against informal vendors that the growing metropolises of Asia and Africa began to harbour in their eagerness to appear modern.

Still later in several countries of South-East Asia, I saw plentiful evidence in both urban and rural markets of the informal sale of medicinal plants and herbs. Once again, the arrangement was the same, the collections were similar – leaves, roots, powders, pastes, seeds – and the vendors carried the distinct manner of not belonging in any way to the city. And once again, there was the air with them of a practice that was being greyed out from ‘modern’ life.

It was the independent and self-governing new countries of what had formerly been colonised African, South Asian and South-East Asian territories that were pushing out the vendors, typically using fines and punishments, accompanied by discriminatory regulations. Forms had to be filled which illiterate vendors could not fill. Associations had to be joined which the herb collectors had no wish to, nor could they afford to. Local and municipal politicians and thugs had to be placated and gratified. There was, in such a system, no place for vendors from afar of medicinal plants and herbs.

“It is not surprising that the European on arriving in Africa with his guns, went on destroying African values and institutions with the same arrogant confidence as all military conquerors had done before him,” Kihumbu Thairu had observed in his book, The African Civilisation (1975). “It is very fortunate that the stubborn will of some few Africans resisted this in the field of healing. These are now still practising as ‘witch doctors’, ‘bush doctors’ etc. In these people we shall if we hurry up, find the last remains of African medicine which should be researched on by us before it vanishes.” But a scant decade after this book was published, it was African and Asian administrations that recommenced, upon their own medicinal traditions, the assault begun by the colonists with guns.

During a medical team’s visit to a village, villagers were forced, often at gunpoint, to undergo a physical examination

Administrators and bureaucrats the world over pay little attention to history. When they do, it is to find some account that lends a scrap of respectability to some pet programme of some minister, or to some cunning plot – disguised as rural development, poverty alleviation or some such label – they have devised at the behest of their masters, which almost always are big business. Otherwise, history is neglected tomes upon the unvisited top shelves of libraries.

Especially where public health is concerned, it should not be so. From the early 20th century, Belgian, British and French colonial administrators of those powers’ African territories implemented medical campaigns whose intention and methods were truly breath-taking, by any moral standards. They were concerned about sleeping sickness (human African trypanosomiasis), yaws, malaria, leprosy, yellow fever. In the territories that we know in present-day Africa as Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Gabon and elsewhere, the colonial governments organised their medical campaigns.

The most extensive of these campaigns focused on sleeping sickness, which is spread by the tsetse fly. Over the course of several decades, millions of individuals were subjected to medical examinations and forced to receive injections of medications with dubious efficacy and with serious side effects, including blindness, gangrene, and death. During a medical team’s visit to a village, villagers were forced, often at gunpoint, to undergo a physical examination. For many in these colonial territories, these campaigns were their first exposure to ‘modern’ medicine.

The justification for these medical campaigns was couched in humanitarian language (we care for our subjects) but had in fact to do with ensuring that the supply of employable labour for the colonial enterprise of extracting plant and mineral wealth from the colonies was not significantly interrupted by disease outbreaks. Perhaps less important but nonetheless significant were the scientific and nationalistic motivations, for the colonial governments competed with one another over developing advances in medicine.

Western anthropology was framed in almost all of its accounts by the supposed superiority of European science and industrial development

It is only much later that medical anthropology began sifting through the records of that period in an effort to understand the deep-seated distrust in former African colonies of western medicine. The colonial medical campaigns undoubtedly fostered and cemented distrust of the methods of foreign medicine – the injections caused lifelong side-effects and even death, what was injected was ineffective against disease, the campaigns caused the spread of contagious diseases because of the re-use of unsanitary needles.

As it took hold of descriptions of Africa, western anthropology was framed in almost all of its accounts by the supposed superiority of European science and industrial development and by the colonialist context of research. Nineteenth century imperialism was accompanied (not only in African colonial territories of course but in all territories and regions occupied by European colonising powers) by nineteenth century European medicine.

The relationship between empires and the diseases that wracked them was described in terms of fevered and frail native bodies that were not people – with names, families, cultures and traditions including the traditions of healing – but vectors of infection. The descriptions of these diseased native bodies emphasised their difference from the well fortified and virile bodies of the colonisers, who were strengthened by their industrial medicine, whose superiority was proven even against the storied powers of tropical diseases.

With the close of the colonial era in Africa, Asia South and South-East, South America, any concerns in the newly independent countries about the form and shape medicine and public health should now take were submerged in the task, common to all, of nation-building. They wanted institutions for the process of democracy and administrative structures that would run according to nationalistic – not colonial – goals. And they set about (or rather, were cunningly guided into) building these, to greater or lesser degree, in imitation of what had been replaced. As with structures, so with approach, one followed the other and that is why the medicine of the colonising powers, and the methods they brought, became the sine qua non of the newly independent countries.

“The advance made by Western medicine, particularly in the last 100 years or so, has been truly wonderful. Great strides have been made in the art of surgery and obstetrics and much progress achieved in bacteriology, immunology and in synthetic medicine.” So stated, in 1948, the Report of the Committee on Indigenous Systems of Medicine, published by the Ministry of Health of the Government of India, “The progress of Western medicine is, however, mostly on the scientific side and we would be the last to deny the value of the scientific method. In fact we hold that it must be prosecuted with vigour and zeal. But we also realise that along with this type of study and research, there must be some attempt at synthesising the large harvest of factual data received from scientific investigations.”

Coloured by such servility, it is hardly surprising that the deliberations of the Indian Committee on Indigenous Systems of Medicine were slanted from the very outset. Its two volumes of report and recommendations set the tone for independent India’s public health system, one in which there was “indigenous medicine” but subordinate to the medicine of the former colonial power (Britain). Even so, that report furnishes us with a glimpse of the gulf that was seen to lie between the two systems.

“Western medicine has now become so highly technical and complex that an average student is finding it increasingly difficult to assimilate. Due to the emphasis laid on laboratory studies and from relative neglect of studies at the bedside, even the cost of diagnosis and treatment has become so great that an average person especially in a poor country like India, is still unable to benefit from them; so much of its treatment is still purely symptomatic. For those who do not benefit, at least an experiment with other systems of treatment should not be denied.”

India’s report of the Committee on Indigenous Systems of Medicine, 74 years ago, shows us how in the immediate post-colonial era, colonial perspectives toward indigenous medicinal systems, indigenous healers and traditional cures were maintained by the newly independent countries. The new ministries of health ensured that every country’s public health system faithfully continued not only colonial perspectives but practices too, and the full reliance on the modern pharmaceutical industry and its products. In such an environment, traditional healers became traditional ‘doctors’ and commenced their commercial activity, especially in growing cities and towns, as facsimiles of Western medical practices.

Could they have done otherwise? For the individual traditional healer (who became the traditional ‘doctor’) who needed to earn a living in the city, it would have been exceedingly difficult to, for the might of the state was already being fully exercised in the direction of a centrally planned public system. Thus by the early 1960s in India, and Indian Council of Medical Research was already working and expanding quickly. Side by side were the organs of the former colonial government which continued and enlarged their work: a Plague Research Laboratory, the Pasteur Institute, a School of Tropical Medicine, an All-India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, a Malaria Institute of India, a Nutritional Research Laboratory, all advised and supported by Advisory Committees of every description (such as the Pharmacology Advisory Committee and the Communicable Diseases Committee), an Indian Medical Services (which had a directorate-general), public health commissioners in each state, and National Control Programmes for major diseases. Faced with this Brobdingnagian beast, what could the humble traditional healer do?

Such a rhetorical question faced by the Indian ayurvedic ‘vaidya’, or traditional healer or doctor in any Indian system of indigenous medicine, was faced likewise by every healer of every traditional medicinal system in countries that had been colonies at the end of the second world war. The decades of the 1950s and 1960s brought to these countries the same forces that in India were at work to enlarge – and through such enlargement to control – the structure of the public health system. This was ‘modernisation’ and the prescribed route away from the Third World.

Lost, in this swift and cunning re-colonisation, were the foundational precepts of the healing arts of both West and East. Lost was the advice of Hippocrates (in ‘On Ancient Medicine’, 400 BCE): “For there is in man the bitter and the salt, the sweet and the acid, the sour and the insipid, and a multitude of other things having all sorts of powers both as regards quantity and strength. These, when all mixed and mingled up with one another, are not apparent, neither do they hurt a man; but when any of them is separate, and stands by itself, then it becomes perceptible, and hurts a man.”

Lost too was the Goethean description of how the essential being of the plant enters into the physical, material world from a spiritual world of forces which are beyond immediate perception, and how in the physical world it manifests in a form apparent to the senses and then passes away again, back into the sphere of the supersensible. All but lost was the ayurvedic principle of the four subtle bodies of man, in addition to the physical form: the energetic body (pranamaya kosa), our mental body (manomaya kosa), our intellectual body (vijnanamaya kosa), and ultimately our blissful or soul body (anandamaya kosa).

“When these bodies or sheaths are misaligned or clash with one another, we inevitably encounter the alienation and fragmentation that so trouble our world,” B K S Iyengar had written in his Light on life: the yoga way to wholeness, inner peace and ultimate freedom (2005). “When these sheaths are brought into alignment and harmony with one another, the fragmentation disappears, integration is achieved, and unity is established.”

The great dislocation that we have experienced – commencing in late 2019 in some places and during the first two months of 2020 in other places – to the idea and practice of public health, could be seen as an attempt, by the forces that make the modern pharmaceutical industry, to stifle forever practices that have to do with alignment, harmony, integration, unity. After all, these are practices, in the hundreds, that do their work at the small scale, the scale of the individual or the family. They are local, as are their ingredients. They afflict the motives of profit and control, which since the late 19th century have swelled the pharmaceutical industry into the world-devouring hydra it has now become.

It is very likely that the simultaneous awakening that has come about during 2020-22 is already ushering in a returning, or a myriad retracings of wayward steps, to the fundamentals of medicine and cure

Many were the social anthropologists – such as E E Evans-Pritchard in Africa and Edward Selby Phipson in India – whose efforts were redirected to the cause of colonial empires. But it was not unknown that even in the 16th century, European physicians who encountered indigenous systems of medicine and traditional healers, whether in Asia, Africa or South America, found their broad outlines recognisable. Humours were known, so was the reliance on plant medicine, there were parallels in diagnosis and therapy. The mysterious East (or Orient, or sub-Equatorial south) was not medicinally so mysterious after all. The term ‘flux’, as used in England from the late 14th century, had much in common with the Sanskrit atisara, or purging.

It is very likely that the simultaneous awakening that has come about during 2020-22 is already ushering in a returning, or a myriad retracings of wayward steps, to the fundamentals of medicine and cure. The model of the patient, invented by and powerfully propagated by the pharmaceutical industry (and its recent accomplice, the medical devices industry), as a biomechanical being whose individual organs and body parts are separately treatable, even replaceable, has run its tortuous course. The roots of medicine are discerned once more.

Select references

Healing Traditions. African Medicine, Cultural Exchange, and Competition in South Africa, 1820–1948, Karen E Flint, 2008
Indigenous medicine and knowledge in African society, Kwasi Konadu, 2007
Globalization and the new world order: Promises, problems, and prospects for Africa in the twenty-first century, F M Edoho (ed), 1997
The African background to medical science: Essays on African history, science & civilizations, C S Finch, 1990
Health in Independent India, G Borkar, 1961
Knowledge and the scholarly medical traditions, Don Bates (ed), 1995
The Legacy of Colonial Medicine in Central Africa, Sara Lowes and Eduardo Montero, American Economic Review, 2021

See also: Culture’s Silent Exiles

3 thoughts on “The occluded root: how modern war was waged upon old healing arts

  1. Thank you Magdalene for that account, and also for pointing out the connection between vaccination and leprosy, which I didn’t know about. What prompted me to write this is the capitulation of local medicinal traditions, which I witnessed first hand in India and some countries of south-east Asia, to industrial pharma. That this had begun in the late 19th or early 20th century is known, barely, but the methods used to become the basis of the public health systems in these countries remains I think a very under-researched area. Regards, Rahul Goswami


  2. Thank you for the interesting article.

    I have just finished reading a book written in late 1800s about leprosy In the latter half of 1800s there was a increase in many parts of the world …in the colonies etc and many doctors considered the smallpox vaccination as the cause. Arm to arm vaccination was used in many places. But it was hushed up and dismissed by the authorities.

    Also tuberculosis and syphilis were 2 other diseases that increased with the increase of the smallpox vaccination.

    In the appendix some interesting texts also. Here is an example that I recently typed up to include in my next newsletter.


    Appendix, p354, The Recrudescence of Leprosy and Its Causation. By William Tebb, 1893.

    ‘The following is taken from the “Life of Jenner,” by Baron, a warm partisan of vaccination published in 1827, vol. I, p557-559:- On the introduction of vaccine inoculation into India, it was found that the practice was much opposed by the natives. In order to overcome their prejudices, the late Mr Ellis, of Madras, who was well versed in Sanscrit literature, actually composed a short poem in that language on the subject of vaccination. This poem was inscribed on old paper, and said to have been found, that the impression of its antiquity might assist the effect intended to be produced on the minds of the Brahmins while tracing the preventive to their sacred cow. The late Dr Anderson, of Madras, adopted the vary same expedient in order to deceive the Hindoos into a belief that vaccination was an ancient practice of their own.”

    Best wishes

    Magdalene Taylor



    1. Thank you very much Magdalene for that account., I did not know about the leprosy and vaccination connections What led me to write this is the capitulation that I have witnessed, first hand, in India and in several south-east Asian countries, of their local medicinal traditions. This is perhaps still an area that is under-researched: why and how did the industrial pharma of the late 19th and early 20th centuries come to be the basis of these countries’ public health systems. Ellis seems to have been a very clever man. Thanks for that tip I shall look for more references here. Rahul Goswami


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