Book Excerpt : Remembering the Bombay Plague of 1896-97

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Book Excerpt : Remembering the Bombay Plague of 1896-97

An excerpt from Saeed Ibrahim’s book “Twin Tales from Kutcch,” reveals the present that happened in the past.

The Covid-19 pandemic under which the whole world is currently reeling shows how history has a way of repeating itself. Below is an excerpt from Saeed Ibrahim’s book "Twin Tales from Kutcch", a family saga set in Colonial India. Certain historical facts and events have been used to serve as a suitable backdrop to the prevailing times and to provide a historical perspective to the narrative. A chapter from the book describes the plague epidemic of 1896 that ravaged Bombay and other parts of India in the closing years of the 19th century. It was only after the development in 1897 of an anti-plague vaccine by Waldamar Haffkine, a Russian bacteriologist that the epidemic was finally brought under control. Let us hope that the efforts of the world's scientists in this direction will soon bear fruit and rid us of this latest scourge.

But the economic benefits of this progress were blunted to some extent by two major catastrophes that hit the region towards the close of the nineteenth century: the Bombay Plague of 1896-97 and the famine of 1899 – 1900.

The famine of 1899-1900 was caused by the failure of the monsoon and deficient rainfall over vast areas of Western and Central India. This resulted indrought, crop failures, scarcities and starvation. Mortality rates were high and countless million individuals died of starvation or accompanying disease. The weavers of Malegaon too suffered extreme distress and famine relief measures either through subsidised grain sales or outright gratuitous relief had to be organized.

For the Bombay Presidency the miseries suffered by the famine were nothing compared to what the region went through during the outbreak, the spread and aftermath of the dreaded plague epidemic. The commercial success of Bombay and its rapid growth led to a large influx of workers. Most of the immigrant workers lived in overcrowded tenements and chawls where public sanitation was poor and basic civic amenities lacking. In the maze of twisting by-lanes with open and overflowing gutters, the drainage system was extremely poor and inadequate andvarious diseases were endemic to these areas. In the dock areas the godowns and warehouses were often filled with rotting grain and rodents and rats had a field day. Rodent diseases were passed on to humans through fleas that lived in the rats and it was suspected that the plague had been imported from Hong Kong where a plague epidemic in 1894 had killed ten thousand people.

The first case in Bombay was detected and correctly diagnosed as bubonic plague in September 1896 by Dr. Acacio Gabriel Viegas. The onset of the disease was characterized by high fever and a painful glandular swelling called a “bubo” in the groin, neck or armpit areas. Death followed rapidly preceded by a drowsy stupor and even delirium. The disease spread rapidly across the city and the death toll was estimated at 1,900 people per week by the end of 1896. The brunt of the plague was borne by mill workers many of whom fled from the city to escape the plague or the rigorous implementation of the measures adopted by the authorities to contain the epidemic. The population of Bombay which was 820,000 in 1891, dropped to 780,000 according to the census of 1901.

The authorities undertook several measures to stop the spread of the plague such as flushing out drains and sewers with large quantities of seawater and carbolic, emptying of shops and grain warehouses and sprinkling disinfectant powder in alleyways and tenements. But some of these measures were extremely severe and caused misery and deprivation to the masses. The campaign for eradication involved destroying several hundred slum dwellings, the segregation and hospitalization of suspected plague cases, evacuation of people, prohibition of fairs and pilgrimages, examination and detention of road and rail travellers and the inspection of ships and their passengers. For the poor workers, the segregation and hospitalization of suspected victims of the plague led to the loss of their jobs or their income. To avoid these measures, victims were smuggled out and their departure ironically led to the spread of the disease.

It was only after the development in 1897 of an anti-plague vaccine in his Bombay laboratory by Waldemar Haffkine, a Russian bacteriologist, that inoculations started being administered and with this, coupled with the other preventive and sanitary measures, the epidemic was finally contained by the end of 1920. But by then it had spread to other parts of the country notably the Konkan Coast, Thane, Kolaba, Poona, Satara, Nasik district (including Malegaum), Ahmednagar and the towns and districts of the Deccan.

(L) twin Tales From Kuttch; (R) A still from Bombay plague.
(L) twin Tales From Kuttch; (R) A still from Bombay plague.

Bangalore based writer, Saeed Ibrahim , is the author of “Twin Tales from Kutcch,” a family saga set in Colonial India, which has won critical acclaim both in India and overseas. Saeed was born and brought up in Mumbai and was educated at St. Mary’s High School and St. Xavier’s College and later at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris. He has also written newspaper articles, short stories, book reviews and some travel writing. His love of history, tradition and heirlooms is highlighted in his current book as also in the stories he has written for the Museum of Material Memory.

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