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How the Bombay Plague of 1896 Played Out – The Wire

When any authority decides to impose restrictions on certain public affairs, it may or may not be on the basis of an underlying reason, which in turn may or may not be in line with the popular consensus. The 21-day lockdown in India paints an unnerving picture of restrictions on public movement, citizen gatherings, unwanted outstation travel and uneven availability of essential goods. The people’s panicked response is however normal behaviour recorded in the study of behavioural psychology.

The British government in India witnessed a similarly radical response during the Bombay plague outbreak in 1897, amidst scientific progress, societal hubris and extremism.

The 1896-1897 plague epidemic is thought to have originated in the Chinese mainland during the early 19th century, although ideas of its origins exist. The ruling Qing dynasty at that time was by some accounts reluctant to quarantine patients since it meant separating them from their families, and doing so contravened the principles of Confucianism. The plague swept across the Chinese mainland for almost a century before spreading southeast, reaching the port cities by 1894 and killing more than 70,000 people on its way. The plague eventually reached India via naval trade routes and was spreading through Bombay by the summer of 1896.

In the early 20th century (as today), wild rats were attracted to thatched roofed houses and the community tenements, or chawls, of Bombay. These rats carried fleas that in turn carried plague-infected bacteria from home to home, and to humans through physical contact. And as with the novel coronavirus, the initial diagnosis was difficult since the early symptoms of fever were often mistaken for typhus or malaria. An infected person incubated the disease for six to seven days after which its symptoms began to show: swelling of the lymph nodes in the area of groin and armpits (called buboes). The person usually died within 48 hours of the first signs of swelling, and the mortality rate was observed to be as high as 60%.

The colonial government’s top two priorities were to find a cure and to contain the transmission. The famine of 1896 had by then already weakened the economy and the government initially failed to take serious note of the disease. Doctors also often confused the glandular swellings with a common ailment known to be already present in Bombay at the time. So when the cases began to pile up, the government decided to take stern action.

Thinking that the ordinary provisions and rules already in place weren’t enough to stop the transmission, the government extended the Bombay Municipal Act of 1888 to other areas like Pune and Ahmedabad, but to little effect. To acquire a more wide-ranging hold on the disease, the government introduced a Bill in the Council of the Governor-General and passed it as a law, called the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897, based largely on the Venice Sanitary Convention of March 1897.

The Act empowered authorities to adopt all possible measures deemed necessary to prevent the plague’s spread, including prohibition of pilgrimages to Mecca, of emigration from India, of railways bookings, of religious gatherings and of stocking essential commodities. (If these measures sound familiar, it’s probably because the measures of quarantine defined under the Act haven’t changed much due to their documented effectiveness.)

The government also set up a plague research committee. The surgeon R. Manser presided over it and investigated drugs that could be used to treat the plague. Another member, E.N. Hankin, was a bacteriologist from Oudh (now Awadh) and occupied himself with the investigation of the bacteria’s behaviour in water, soil and household items. The committee called the Ukrainian bacteriologist Dr Waldemar Haffkine to Bombay from Calcutta and established a laboratory in Parel to find a cure.

After a series of inconclusive results, Dr Haffkine decided to take up preventive inoculation, which is the process of injecting a pathogen into a healthy body to provoke the immune system, and after which the body could be immune to the disease. He began his studies with infected rats and extracted the bacteria, and successfully grew more of the bacteria in meat broth (scientists use Petri dishes these days) under a layer of homemade ghee or coconut oil. These lab-grown colonies of bacteria appeared like threads and were known as Haffkine stalactites. The bacteria were allowed to grow for two weeks before they were weakened by heating.

When these weakened bacteria were introduced to an uninfected human body, antibodies were able to fight them off quite effectively. However, the battle was only half won. Many in society were critical of the new scientific advances – a resistance we see even today. Many people turned down Haffkine’s requests to inoculate them, often due to superstitious beliefs. But he was able to conduct a few controlled experiments, largely with prison inmates and volunteers, and demonstrated that he could reduce the plague’s mortality by 97.4%. The British government now had a vaccine.

Britain’s previous experience with the bubonic plague had taught them lessons about disease control, and one of them was to separate the diseased from the healthy. The Bombay government had decided to constitute a committee to implement the restrictive orders set by the Government of India, and one of its principal goals was to suppress the plague before the rains. The committee clearly defined the quarantine’s objectives, and mandated that public officials discover infected people and begin their treatment in designated hospitals, while those who had come in close contact with them had to be moved to quarantine camps.

Soldiers were enlisted to conduct a door-to-door search in infected areas. By way of disinfection, seawater was pumped by centrifugal pumps into the sewers throughout the day and into the night. Public officials began to wash the streets and footpaths with lime. The government advised that dwellings be disinfected and household objects exposed to sunlight, and that ‘infected dwellings’ be demolished.

Express orders were issued to take caste and religious sects into consideration while screening infected houses. The segregation camps were asked to maintain separate quarters for men and women. Private hospitals for Hindu and Muslims came up in many places. Special arrangements were also made to dispose of dead bodies, including sprinkling carbolic powder over the corpse before washing with a phenyl solution.

These were all logical measures on paper but came a cropper in practice. While segregating the healthy from the sick was the only effective way to control the disease’s spread, the soldiers’ methods triggered widespread social anxiety. People complained of impolite conduct and substandard arrangements in both hospitals and segregation camps. Mill workers in Bombay assembled in front of Arthur Road Hospital and threatened its demolition. While family members were separated and shifted either to isolation wards or hospitals, the authorities did not assume responsibility for their now-empty houses, and they often returned to find their properties looted or destroyed1. The government’s heavy-handed approach began to drive many people out of the city, which only caused the plague to spread even more.

The public discontent took a turn for the worst in Pune. Walter Charles Rand, an Indian civil service officer deputed as the city’s plague commissioner, was murdered. Rand was infamous for his inconsiderate actions. His door-to-door searches were not very different from ransacking, and his team of soldiers were often accused of destroying public property and assaulting the gentry. On the night of June 22, three brothers – Damodar, Balkrishna and Wasudev Chapekar, all younger than 30 – shot Rand when he was returning home with his wife after attending Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. They were later caught and hanged until dead. Their act, together with the activities of extremists like Wasudev Balwant Phadke, may have marked the start of militant nationalism in India.

This phase of the people’s struggle underlines a massive fallibility on the part of our colonisers. They failed to understand all the adversity the people faced at such a crucial time. The government’s oppressive measures are reminiscent of the words of Thucydides: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Regardless of the state’s efforts, around 50,000 are thought to have died in Bombay alone; in the next two years, over 300,000 died around India. But far from admitting these figures, senior officials in the government falsified government records to present a favourable opinion to the rest of the world.

The unsympathetic measures did not fail entirely, of course: the British succeeded in controlling the spread of disease to some extent, although the price they exacted could never be affordable. Dr Haffkine’s vaccine saved many lives as well. So some of these measures have found a permanent place in the country’s guidebook to handle epidemics, and were again deployed during the plague of 1904.

While India is no longer a suzerain subject, any state of emergency brought on by an infectious disease is bound to repeat similar conditions as India observed in Bombay in 1897. The difference in response is marked by the type of government, and today, we have a democratically elected government. And while the 21-day national lockdown might feel restrictive and imposing because it is unfamiliar and its strictures are inimical to normal life, it also has its part to play in controlling an epidemic.

Suyash Verma is an independent researcher and writer with a postgraduate degree in history from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.