Book Notice 2

By Cassie Watson; posted 1 September 2016.

David Arnold, Toxic Histories: Poison and Pollution in Modern India (Cambridge: CUP, 2016), ix + 241 pp. 8 figs. £34.99 (hbk), ISBN: 978-1-107-12697-8

This book provides a cogent and interesting account of the history of poisons and poisoning in nineteenth- and twentieth-century India, to show how and why “India’s poison pasts still speak to its toxic present”. It thus embeds poison within the medical, scientific, social and cultural history of colonial and independent India.

Historians of law, crime and justice will possibly be most interested in the sections which cover poisoning deaths including murder, suicide, infanticide, datura thugi (a more lethal variant of Victorian England’s hocussing) and animal poisoning – a novel and welcome addition to the history of crime. Of the murder cases examined, the Baroda case of 1874 posed particular medico-legal and evidential problems: nothing solid could be proved against the Gaekwar accused of attempting to poison the British Resident with arsenic and diamond dust. Not so the even more troubling Agra  double murder of 1911-12. An affair between Augusta Fullam (a European) and Henry Clark (a Eurasian surgeon) led to the murders of their respective spouses: Eddie Fullam was poisoned and Louisa Clark was killed by hired assassins. Although the medical evidence was again inconclusive, incriminating letters and a confession secured convictions. The 1904 Indian Poisons Act couldn’t save Eddie, but did eventually lead to a decrease in arsenic killings.

Poisoning crimes and wider issues of toxicity were finally recognised as problems that government had to tackle head-on, but the book shows that the environmental problems associated with poisons (mainly pesticides, since independence) have thrown up a whole new set of problems, though these are perhaps more political than medico-legal.

Journal reviews do not yet appear to be available, but academic endorsements are accessible on the publisher’s website. My review for Ambix will be out at the end of 2016.