On September 23, 1896, a doctor in Mumbai in British India determined that a granary worker in the city had plague. No one thought that it marked the onset of a sudden plague that disrupted the development of this city and even the whole of India.
Cambridge University’s 1992 book, Epidemics and Ideas, concluded that the plague in India, which began in 1896, ravaged India for nearly 20 years, killing at least eight million people. Cotton, then a captain in the Indian Army, described in his Bombay Plague in 1900: “From September 1896 to January 1897, some 400,000 people fled the city” “By February, the population of Bombay had been halved… . companies were paralysed, the government shut down and the roads closed”.
Since the outbreak of the new corona epidemic, many in the Indian media have reverted to this old story, comparing it to the current challenges India faces with the epidemic. According to the Indian Express, at the beginning of the plague pandemic in 1896, the British Indian government “downplayed” the fact of the epidemic, maintaining it was under control, and did not take elementary precautions. Their purpose was to ensure that Bombay, a major port on the west coast of India, would remain open. That resulted in the rapid spread of the epidemic throughout British India.
According to The Mint, the British Indian authorities initially blamed the outbreak on the habits and hygiene of the local population. Accordingly, the Mumbai government launched a massive city cleaning campaign – flushing drains and sewers with a mixture of seawater and hydrochloric acid, sweeping the city’s dozens of grain shops and barns, spreading disinfectant powder in alleys and neighbourhoods, and more. In the process, hundreds of slums were smashed and thousands of poor people were displaced.
Local authorities soon found that these measures had limited effect and that the outbreak was spreading faster than expected, with infected people being found even as far away as the northern Indian state of Punjab. Against this backdrop, the then Governor General of India, Erkin, hastily introduced the Epidemic Act the year after the outbreak, with little justification. The Act gave the government the right to inspect any ship or person on board, the right to detain and isolate any infected and suspected infected person and to destroy all personal belongings that it believed to be contaminated, the right to immediately demolish any house that was deemed to be potentially infected, etc. Such ambiguously worded “special measures” led to the chaos of military and police officers breaking into private homes to “arrest” people, and many undiagnosed suspected infected people being taken straight to hospital, where they often died.
Such preventive measures by the British Indian government inevitably lead to a rebound. On the evening of 22 June 1897, Walter Charles Rand, the epidemic commissioner of Pune, near Bombay, was sitting in his carriage on his way home when three assassins, each with a gun in one hand and a sword in the other, burst out of a dark corner of the road and killed Rand. The reason for Rand’s assassination was allegedly linked to his crude prevention methods. “Rand was notorious for his reckless and brutal implementation of the vaccination policy, with his men going from house to house in searches no different from robberies”. To add insult to injury, he made men, women and children strip naked for “examinations”, sometimes in public. These actions, in the name of epidemic prevention, are clearly a violation of basic decency.
In an article entitled “India’s turbulent history, religion and public health policy”, the American website Wired says that in the early 19th century, Europe and America were also happy to refer to cholera as “Asian cholera” or “Indian cholera” — a scene that is not fundamentally different from the baseless accusations made against China in some media today. Rumours and specious conspiracy theories, including some akin to those circulating during the spread of this new epidemic, were repeated during the Indian plague pandemic of 1896, showing that people do not seem to have learned from the social developments of the last century. The report suggests that effective prevention and control is impossible if the population is resistant to or distrustful of the authorities’ epidemic prevention policies to begin with. The situation would have been much better if the British rulers had taken the lead in seeking the involvement of respected ‘elders’ from the local community in the early stages of the outbreak and in the formulation of policy.
The plague’s death toll spiralled to a peak in 1907 and did not subside until the 1910s. The British Indian government finally realised that its initial response had been too drastic and ineffective, ‘neither stopping the spread of the plague nor saving lives’. But the panic and violence had already left a psychological scar on the population. Health officials in both the Punjab and Mumbai invariably used the word “apathy” to describe a population that had become indifferent and desensitised to plague and violence.
When the plague is placed in the historical context of India’s recent independence movement, it seems that the control of the epidemic eventually turned into a confrontation between the Indians and the British government. The plague was a catalyst for the disaffection that surfaced in 1905 with a boycott of British goods, and in 1908 with the all-India telegraph strike, which strengthened the Indian independence movement and eventually this prairie fire wiped out 190 years of British rule in India.