IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Regions | South Asia


Photographic prints at the Kern Institute Leiden

Bubonic Plague in Bombay, 1896-1914

Between the mid-1890s and the early 1920s India was struck by a series of major epidemics: malaria, cholera, Spanish influenza, and the bubonic plague. For a complex medley of reasons, the plague especially caused a long-term crisis in the history of state medicine. For a quarter of a century, plague was a major killer and caused an estimated ten million deaths. As the epidemic spread from Bombay City, western and northern India, were hardest hit. In Bombay City alone, the death toll rose to 183,984 between 1896 and 1914. A few photographs by the commercial firm Clifton and Co. inspired me to explore some of the background of the social impact of the epidemic.


In the early plague years, the epidemic had been more or less concentrated in the cities. In September 1896, the disease was officially acknowledged in Bombay for the first time, despite the fact that suspicious cases of lymphatic swellings had already been observed by local medical practitioners back in May. Quick action was taken at all levels: the Government of India was spurred on by international pressure, as the threat of a trade embargo was palpable from the very beginning, and both the Bombay Central Government and the municipal authorities of Bombay City rapidly took measures. By hook or by crook, the disease had to be prevented from spreading over all India and - by overseas trade - to the rest of the world...

But what should be done Although the world had been familiar with the plague for centuries, a successful remedy was still unknown. In fact, it was not until 1894, so only one year earlier, that Kitasato and Yersin had discovered the plague bacillus. Exactly how this rodent disease was passed on to humans, namely via fleas, had still not been establish, although the part played by rats in the transmission was speculated upon. This ignorance nullified the measures first taken by ICS officer P.C.H. Snow and later by the Bombay Plague Committee (established in March 1897) making the latter Committee highly dependent on medical science and medical practitioners.

Government measures

According to David Arnold (1993: 204), the municipality 'embarked on a massive, almost comically thorough, campaign of urban cleansing, flushing out drains and sewers with oceans of seawater and carbolic, scouring out scores of shops and grain warehouses (in the vicinity of which many of the first cases had occurred), sprinkling disinfectant powder in alleyways and tenements (spending more than Rs 100,000 on disinfectant alone by the end of March 1897) and, more tragically, destroying several hundred slum dwellings in the hope of extirpating the disease before it could establish itself.'

Legislation needed to be extended (6 October 1886) or newly framed (All India Act to Provide for the Better Prevention of the Spread of Dangerous Epidemic Disease, February 1897) in order to empower government authorities to take draconian measures, the segregation and hospitalization of suspected plague cases, the destruction of infected property, evacuation of people, prohibition of fairs and pilgrimages, examination and detention of road and rail travellers, and the inspection of ships and their passengers.

A hostile public reaction

The rigorous implementation of the measures led to a true exodus, nearly half of Bombay's estimated 850,000 population left the city between October 1896 and February 1897, to escape the plague and Government measures. Their departure, which meant a great loss to commerce and industrial life, sadly helped the disease to spread. Those who remained seemed petrified by fear, suspicion, and rumours. One may ask why.

Medical intervention started with an examination of the body in search of the characteristic lymphatic swellings or buboes. Exposure to the gaze of Western medical practitioners (male and white) and, even worse, their (polluting) physical touch presented a huge problem. Yet, such an examination could be expected almost everywhere. Initially there had been house searches in which the use of the so-called 'white bulls' (British troops) provoked severely hostile reactions, as the soldiers had recently been involved in a series of violent racial incidents. There were plague docters on railway stations where people could be separated into a male and a female queue for examination and there were examinations on the streets, as well. The public character of these examinations was humiliating.

Interior of the Plague Hospital, Bombay, ca. 1900.

Plague victims were hospitalised (see photo: note the airiness; ventilation was recommended). For most Indians, these hospitals were places of utter pollution (blood and faeces) and loci of the unacceptable mingling of castes and religions. Suspected victims were transferred to segregation camps, where they had to live for quite some time, deprived of their relatives. For most Indians both hospitalization and segregation led to the loss of their job or their income. In order to avoid these measures, victims were smuggled out to search-free areas or well hidden within their own houses. The bubonic plague proved an implacable adversary. As time passed, the government had to fight both the epidemic and the people as an endless stream of rumours flourished, skilfully aided by the press. These rumours reveal a deep suspicion of Western medicine: doctors and hospital staff intended to poison Indians; in the hospital you would be killed so that the doctors could cut you up and, at the same time, extract a mysterious oil from your body, known as momiai.

Inoculation against plague, Bombay 1897 - 1914.

Another rumour was that inoculation would cause instantaneous death, impotence, and sterility, and besides, the needle was a yard long (see photo: note the white, hygienic atmosphere suggesting everything is under control). These inoculations started in 1897-1898, shortly after Waldemar Haffkine, a Russian bacteriologist, had developed an anti-plague vaccine in his Bombay laboratory. The Government of India initially reacted sceptically: the serum was thought to be still in the experimental stage and evacuation, and thus other sanitary interventions, would be more effective. When time proved these assumptions wrong, the government tried to persuade people to accept inoculation, although vaccination was never made compulsory.

By the end of the 1920s, the disease was in gradual decline, which, according to David Arnold (1993: 236), was 'probably due less to medical and sanitary intervention, than to the natural limits set on its spread by a variety of zoological and ecological factors, such as the geographical distribution of certain species of rat fleas and the growing immunity of rats to the plague bacillus.' *


- Arnold, David, Colonizing the Body, State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India, Delhi: Oxford University Press (1993).

Drs Gerda Theuns-de Boer is an art historian and Project Manager of the Photographic Database on Asian Art and Archaeology, Kern Institute, Leiden University.
E-mail: g.a.m.theuns@let.leidenuniv.nl

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Regions | South Asia