Lessons from the Bubonic Plague of 1896

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    The Covid-19 outbreak has resurrected a century-old, colonial-era law that gives state-level governing bodies in India sweeping powers to control the disease. These radical measures, which have the country in lockdown mode, are aimed at preventing the spread of the highly contagious disease and are rooted in the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897.

    This law essentially allows a state government to take extraordinary measures when it is “threatened with the outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease”. The legislation also says the state can enforce “temporary regulations to be observed by the public as deemed necessary to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread thereof”.

    Although the calendar now reads ‘2020’, and we must keep in mind that things are very different today as the state is of the people, in a democracy like ours, it is interesting to look back at history. After all, authorities today have flipped back more than a hundred years to keep the Covid19 virus from wreaking more havoc than it already has. Back then while the Act was often executed in a brutal manner, the objective was the same as it is now – social distancing.

    The Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 was drafted rather hurriedly by a British administration scrambling to control the bubonic plague, which devastated the Bombay Presidency in 1896. While the first case of the plague in India was detected in Bombay, it spread quickly to Bengal, Punjab, the United Provinces, and later even to Burma. However, its impact was most severe in Western and Northern India, while southern and eastern India escaped with relatively fewer deaths. By 1901, 4 lakh Indians were reported dead, and by 1905, the toll was 10 lakh.

    The Plague Breaks Out

    The bubonic plague is caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, carried by fleas that commonly reside on the bodies of small animals like rodents. These rodents in Central Asia were long known to carry the disease, which would kill locals and travellers who passed through these regions. The infection would spread mainly via the bite of infected fleas living on the rodents, or when human body fluids came in contact with the carcass of an infected rodent.

    In time, as new trade relations were established, these remote areas became easily accessible and the disease did not take long to spread to other countries through commercial routes. The epicentre of the bubonic plague was in Western Yunnan in China, where there had been a rapid influx of the Han Chinese in the 1850s. These were migrants looking to exploit the rich mineral resources in the area.

    Furthermore, with the highly profitable opium trade gaining momentum and with improvements in transportation, the number of migrants exploded. Soon, the disease took the form of an epidemic and started spreading to other parts of China, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process. From there, the scourge is suspected to have entered India via Hong Kong, through infected flea-infested rodents that sailed in on British opium-laden merchant ships. The first case was detected in Mandvi, a congested locality near the docks in Bombay.

    Trade Versus Plague

    During the early stages of the plague, the British did nothing to stop the disease from spreading as they did not want to impede the thriving global trade in any way. As a result, they kept all ports fully functional for commercial activities. This was disastrous as the bubonic plague soon started spreading rapidly in India.

    As the situation spun out of control, the British hastily drafted the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 and began to enforce it in India. The Act gave the local authorities the power to do virtually anything they needed to salvage the situation, without any legal ramifications. At the time, the Assistant Commissioner of Pune, W C Rand, was tasked with implementing the Act. Initially, Rand made a genuine effort to provide relief by setting up quarantine camps and hospitals, while also disinfecting the plague-affected areas.

    However, as the situation worsened, Rand adopted brutal measures, which stripped Indians of their dignity. Rand and his men, who included young doctors backed by the army and police, would publicly strip men, women and children in order to inspect sensitive body parts like their groins and armpits for signs of the bubonic plague. Infected individuals would be forcibly quarantined or shifted to hospitals. Often buildings, food, clothes and other properties of the affected individuals were ruthlessly burnt and destroyed, without their permission, during the process of disinfection.

    The New York Times reporting the plague in June 1897 quoted a Presbyterian priest who had said, “Two kinds of the disease, and both deadly—natives dying by hundreds of hunger—Overseers stealing the supplies.” Even though people who were simply suspected of being infected were forcibly taken away to detention centres, measures like these did not help bring the disease under control. Instead, they aggravated its spread, especially among the ones kept in detention centres.

    Bombay faced the same situation as did Pune, and according to Cynthia Deshmukh in her 1988 journal article titled The Bombay Plague (1896-1897), communities like the Jains, Bhatias and the Banias living in chawls in the Mandvi locality added to the woes by refusing to allow the killing of rats due to their religious beliefs. In addition, a majority of citizens in Bombay refused to believe that they were infected and refused to go to hospitals and quarantine camps. Sometimes, their protestations caused large-scale chaos.

    Deshmukh in her paper cites the instance of a Parsi family who had a 13-year-old, infected Hindu boy living with them. The women in the family wielded knives and surrounded the boy so that he would not be taken away. They threatened to commit suicide using the knives if the boy was taken. The boy died the next day in the Parsi household, as neither the police nor the health officer could convince the women.

    The brutal steps taken by the British administration and the indignities they heaped on the local people led to a build-up of outrage. Add fear to the mix and it made for a very explosive situation. Once the reality of the plague began to sink in, panic gripped the people and thousands began to flee Bombay, taking the plague with them.

    Outrage Spills Over

    Amid the chaos and din, the British government realised that a foreign ruling entity could not effectively tackle the situation without taking into account the social customs and mores followed by the natives. This led to the rise of a middle-class leadership in the Bombay Presidency, and those with an English education tried to mediate with the British government.

    Bal Gangadhar Tilak was one such leader, who gave a voice to the citizens of India during the 1896-97 plague crisis, and spoke against the government’s high-handedness in his paper Kesari. His writings inspired the Chapekar brothers from Pune – Damodar, Balkrishna and Vasudev – and the trio decided to take down Rand, who they felt had brought indignity and humiliation to many families in Pune.

    On 22nd June 1897, at around midnight, after the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee had ended, Walter Charles Rand and Lieutenant Ayerst (Rand’s military escort) were returning from the celebrations. The three Chapekar brothers used the opportunity to strike – they first shot dead Ayerst and then Rand. The brothers were later caught and sentenced to death.

    After the killings of the two British officials, a series of trials was set in motion, where many Indians were held and charged with sedition. Among these was Tilak, who faced 18 months of rigorous imprisonment. It was after his sentencing in the Rand case that Tilak famously said, “Swaraj is my birthright, and I shall have it.” Thus, India found a new national leader in Tilak, who later made many important contributions to the country’s fight for freedom as a part of the Indian National Congress in the early 20th century.

    Controlling The Epidemic

    As the bubonic plague continued to take large numbers of lives across India, the British government pressurised the noted Russian bacteriologist, Waldemar Haffkine, to develop a vaccine against the disease as early as possible. Three months later, Haffkine was ready for a human trial. On 10th January 1897, he tested the vaccine first on himself, and after that, volunteers from the Byculla jail were inoculated.

    The inoculated inmates survived the epidemic and the vaccine was thereafter made available to Indians. By the turn of the century, 4 million people were inoculated in India, after which the bubonic plague, although showing up sporadically till around 1920, eventually petered out. The one good outcome of the disastrous handling of the plague crisis was that these experiences were recorded and later used to lay the foundation of India's modern public health services.

    A look at the handling of the plague crisis of 1896-97 clearly shows that the British had a poor understanding of Indian social customs and mind-set. It also reveals their complete lack of preparedness to tackle the epidemic, which resulted in the deaths of lakhs of people.

    They initially allowed the plague to spread just to keep global trade afloat and took brutal measures to crack down only after it had spiralled out of control. Besides, the hastily drafted Epidemic Disease Act of 1897, which gave absolute powers to the local authorities, turned out to be too draconian to bring about any actual relief to the affected. Now the same law has been resurrected and is being implemented, without any amendments to suit the modern scenario.

    India is now an independent democratic nation, and in 2020, as we find ourselves in the grip of the Covid19 pandemic, one can only look back at history and hope that lessons are learnt. We need sensitive care, timely action, good solid infrastructure and benevolent care for the most needy, to face the current challenge.

    Photos courtesy:


    Monidipa Bose Dey is an educational consultant and columnist on history and travel based subjects.

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