Pretext or Prophylaxis? Racial Segregation and Malarial Mosquitos in a British Tropical Colony: Sierra Leone

Stephen Frenkel, John Western

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Scopus citations


In 1901 the British decided upon a policy of racial residential segregation in their tropical colonies. This policy was ostensibly based upon the discovery three years earlier, by Ronald Ross of the Indian Medical Service, that the anopheles mosquito was the vector for malaria. “Native peoples” were already infected with malaria, colonial officials from Britain were not. Thus, if one could separate residential zones of the two by a distance too great for a mosquito to traverse, then one could protect the health of one's colonial officers. As mosquitos were believed to bite only at night, the officer could safely work among “colonial subjects” by day; only nocturnal segregation was necessary. Reputedly the most malarious place in the British Empire, Sierra Leone was chosen as the test locale for two malaria control expeditions in 1899 and in 1900. The expeditions’ conclusions pointed to a range of preventive measures. The fact that residential segregation was the primary method of prophylaxis chosen is considered significant. Unlike other courses of action, any health benefits were extended only to British colonial officers and not to the general populace. Overlooking Freetown, a segregated “Hill Station” was constructed in 1904; it was connected by a custom-built “mountain railway.” A close reading of the confidential British colonial archives reveals that the decision in favor of Hill Station was not purely medical, but that segregation was conditioned by the pervasive racial thinking of the time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-228
Number of pages18
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1988


  • Colonial
  • Freetown
  • Hill Station
  • malaria
  • mosquito
  • racism
  • segregation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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