New Books Network

A funny thing happened to historian Michael Vann* on the way to his PhD thesis. While he was doing his research on French colonialism...

A funny thing happened to historian Michael Vann* on the way to his PhD thesis. While he was doing his research on French colonialism and the urbanist project in Hanoi, he came across an intriguing dossier: “Destruction of animals in the city”. The documents he found started him on a research path that led to a section of his dissertation, then an article that gained a wide academic and non-academic readership, and now The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford UP, 2018). But this isn’t your typical historical monograph. One of the latest volumes in Oxford University Press’s Graphic History Series, The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt (with illustrations by Liz Clarke), explores the history of modernization, urbanization, and the spread of epidemic disease in the era of “New Imperialism” in an exciting and highly engaging format.

The remaking of Hanoi as a capital of French empire from the end of the nineteenth century had unintended consequences. In the state-of-the-art sewers of the French/white areas of the city, rats found the perfect home. Then came the Third plague pandemic, the disease that travelled with rats and moved from one site to another around the globe…on railroads, ships, the growing networks of trade and empire. The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt mobilizes years of research about this episode in the city’s history, illustrating (literally!) the inherent contradictions of imperialism, and the complexities of domination and resistance in a colonial context. Framed as an undergraduate lecture that features the author as a character throughout the narrative, the book is set up with teaching in mind. In addition to the fascinating story of the rat hunt itself (and all the twists and turns involved), the volume includes a rich selection of primary sources and a series of contextual essays that will allow students to explore this history in a range of productive ways. An accessible book that is at once serious and fun, The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt was such a pleasure to read and to talk about. I hope listeners will enjoy my conversation with Mike as much as I did!

*Mike is also a host on New Books in History! Be sure to check out his interviews here on the network.


Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century France and its empire. She is the author of Future Tense: The Culture of Anticipation in France Between the Wars (2009). Her current research focuses on the history of French nuclear weapons and testing since 1945. Her most recent article, ‘”No Hiroshima in Africa”: The Algerian War and the Question of French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara’ appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of History of the Present. She lives and reads in Vancouver, Canada. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send her an email (panchasi@sfu.ca).