Stanley Gimson, Kanyu Riverside Camp: Dysentery Ward (1943) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 16893)
Stanley Gimson, Kanyu Riverside Camp: Dysentery Ward (1943) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 16893)

Throughout Southeast Asia during the Second World War, tropical diseases ravaged the bodies of those held by Japanese occupying forces:

 As our pocket book gets cleaner

All our frames get leaner and leaner

And the grass grows greener in the graveyard area

Still with spirits unabating

We will wait while flies are mating

For the dysentery cholera and malaria

-        Geoffrey Monument, ‘Rhapsody in Rice’ (circa 1944)

Private Geoffrey Monument was serving with the Royal Army Service Corps when he was captured at the fall of Singapore, 15 February 1942. He would spend the next three and half years in captivity at Changi, Haito in Formosa (today’s Taiwan) and various camps in Japan. Monument wrote poetry in a diary and notebooks that he kept secret during his time as a prisoner and these are now held in IWM’s collections. In the notebooks we can read in fading pencil script that money dwindled – his ‘pocket book gets cleaner’ – and so prisoners were unable to buy extra food to supplement their meagre rations. In sharp contrast, the space around the camp becomes increasingly fertile as the men inhabiting it wilt: Monument watches his campmates around him die, to be buried in the ‘graveyard area’ that gets ever ‘greener’ as the ‘frames’ of his campmates and him become ‘leaner’.

Echoing the lean frames of Monument’s poem, the art created in – and of – prisoner of war camps throughout Southeast Asia is dominated by near-naked skeletal figures crammed into bamboo huts. In Stanley Gimson’s sketch from the Thailand-Burma railway above, shaved heads are drooped and bones protrude due to the effects of hard labour, illness and a starvation diet.

My research focuses on captivity narratives and the responses to them, particularly among second and third generation writers and artists as well as family researchers. I completed my doctorate as a Collaborative Doctoral Award student at the Imperial War Museum and the University of Leeds, focusing on the life-writing of prisoners of war on the Sumatra Railway. Now I have been awarded a Leeds Humanities Research Institute/Wellcome Trust postdoctoral fellowship looking at how the health and medical aspects of incarceration have shaped the representation and remembrance of captivity in Southeast Asia during the Second World War.

I am using archival material, like that held at IWM, to examine depictions of the body, illness, injury – and treatment – of those held in captivity and forced into labour across Japanese occupied territories between 1941 and 1945. This includes military prisoners of war, civilian internees and Asian indentured labourers (romushas). By doing so I will broaden study of this theatre of captivity to examine the bodies that have been ‘forgotten’ in popular cultural representations of the Far East – such as romushas – and lesser known camps inhabited by Allied prisoners: connecting the narratives of history through the bodies that lived it, but did not always survive.