It was approaching winter, the final months of 1896. Bombay’s ferry lines and railway stations were swamped with people, many of them workers at mill lands and dockyards, dhobis and cooks, barbers, butchers and bakers, their meagre belongings tied up in bundles. All desperately seeking a way back home.
The scene is from more than a century ago, as various accounts of the time reported. (It was inevitable, said the Bombay Samachar in December 1896, that if the rich were fleeing the city, the poorer would follow suit.) But it could well be from the current lockdown crisis in India, where millions have been forced into similar harrowing circumstances.
This particular exodus took place after physician Dr AG Viegas confirmed the first case of the bubonic plague in Bombay on September 23, 1896. By the end of January 1897, around four lakh people had fled the city. By February, Bombay’s population was halved and drained of those most essential to its economy. “Business was paralysed, offices closed, and thoroughfares . . . were characterised by a desolate emptiness,” wrote Capt. JK Condon in his book The Bombay Plague (1900).
The Bombay Plague came in five epidemic waves, turning endemic by the early 1900s. Lasting for more than 20 years, by 1918 it had claimed over 10 million lives in India, with over 1.6 lakh in Bombay alone (source: The Indian Medical Gazette). It set off a chain of events — increased surveillance, attacks on health workers by a panicked public, rumours and racist theories — all of which find a resonance in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The British government underplayed the outbreak in its initial days to keep its most important port on India’s west coast open. The outbreak itself was the consequence of British mercantilism — the disease was likely carried through ships from plague-stricken Hong Kong. The weekly Jam-e-Jamshed newspaper accused the government of delaying preventive measures, even though they knew of the plague sweeping through Hong Kong.
Till the outbreak threatened to derail the city, the colonial government was uninterested in investing in civic infrastructure beyond the needs of the Europeans, who resided in the fetching parts of the city such as Malabar Hill and Breach Candy. The working-class neighbourhoods, many of them by the docklands, markets and mill lands, such as Dhobi Talao, Girgaum and Mazgaon, were a warren of small, low rooms, without chimneys or windows, with no light or air supply except from the doorway, perpetually dripping pipes, and with several people huddled under one roof. While the Englishman wanted a bedroom all to himself, the Indian native would gladly pocket his pride and agree to be confined in a room that fitted his length and breadth, wrote George W Clutterbuck, a Wesleyan chaplain from Britain, in a book, Bombay the Beautiful (1897).
Officials knew that rats were often the bubonic plague’s first victims and that the disease was deadly, as proven by the Black Death that had swept Europe in the 14th century.
They knew of the plague bacterium, discovered by Alexandre Yersin in Hong Kong two years before the Bombay Plague. But that it spread from the bite of the Oriental rat flea was still unknown. The disease was, therefore, attributed to filth, dampness, unsanitary living conditions and miasma — the theory that epidemics spread through contaminated air. Predictably, slums were suspect.
The first case was detected at a grain merchant’s quarters in the dockland area of Mandvi. Subsequent anti-plague measures targeted poorer neighbourhoods, such as Nagpada and Kamathipura. “Plague was seen as a disease of filth and overcrowding and there was a deep-seated perception that the poor were the carriers. They thus bore the brunt of the anti-plague offensive in colonial Bombay,” says Prashant Kidambi, associate professor in colonial urban history at the University of Leicester, the UK. He observes that class was as important as race in the way the government dealt with the plague — much in the way the slums of Dharavi have been labelled as “COVID-19 hotbeds”, even if the disease entered through airports and via passengers with frequent flyer points.
Plague authorities were armed with the Epidemic Diseases Act, passed in February 1897, which has been invoked and amended for the present pandemic as well. The Act gave an inordinate amount of power to local bodies. Houses could be marked as “unfit for human habitation”, following which landlords could be asked to evict tenants, water supply cut off to reduce dampness, or the building simply burned down or demolished. Authorities could also stop sanitary workers from leaving Bombay, knowing that their mission would fail without them.
The Bombay Plague Committee, headed by General FW Gatacre, and with one Indian representative, considered itself an “imperial necessity” but it was not an opinion shared by the colonial subjects. The reports of the committee published in 1897 and 1898 describe the city as a battlefield, with government officials at loggerheads with local residents over house searches, hospitalisation, corpse inspections and disposal of bodies — nearly every step of their mission. Caste and custom only worsened the panic. Most of the resistance came from upper-caste Hindus, some Muslim sects and Parsis. Men couldn’t tolerate the sight of a wife’s hand being held by a health worker; caste Hindus refused to eat food served by those from “lowly castes”.
In her seminal work from 2012, Health Care in Bombay Presidency, 1896-1930, academic Mridula Ramanna writes, “People were more troubled by the measures to repress it than by the epidemic itself.” Injections were misconstrued as ways to kill patients and have their hearts sent to the Queen of England, Ramanna notes, as appeasement for the disfigurement of her statue at the beginning of the epidemic.
The committee set up military search parties — consisting of a medical man, a nurse or “lady doctor”, a sub-inspector, two lampmen, a locksmith and, interestingly, a hand lotion carrier — and stormed into neighbourhoods to identify the sick. This was sometimes met with great resistance from the public, who viewed hospitals as a place where people went to die. Families stowed the sick in lofts, large wooden chests, under bedding and under bundles of clothing. Women patients would often be found grinding corn or singing energetically, but their telltale, anxious faces and their swollen glands told otherwise. “The resistance from the public was the biggest crisis the colonial government had faced since 1857,” Kidambi says. Since the Indian soldiers’ revolt of 1857, the British were nervous about interfering with local customs and practices. “But the plague required an unprecedented level of intrusion into the Indian home,” Kidambi adds.
The committee eventually realised it was in its best interest to make sure that “caste sympathies and prejudices were always respected”. By April 1898, 36 private hospitals along the lines of caste, many of them especially for the communities most resistant to searches were opened — the Cutchi Memon Plague Hospital, the Bhatia Plague Hospital, the Parel Road Jain Hospital, the Dharavi Hospital for tannery owners and the Telugu Hospital in Kamathipura, among others.
Surveillance wasn’t limited to the home. Passengers of local and outstation trains were medically inspected at select stations like Santa Cruz and Kurla. The plague committee knew that it would only be a matter of time before the migrant population, their finances depleting, returned to the city. (They did begin to trickle in by the summer of 1897.) A number of health camps were opened across the city to isolate residents from infected areas and new arrivals — including one at Marine Drive. At the camps, “surveillance passes” were issued, daily-wage workers given day passes, temperatures were noted on tickets, and, as an added measure, some people were photographed. On alternate days, they would be inspected and compared to the photograph.
Historically, pandemics lead to a range of responses, from authoritarianism to laissez-faire. “The state’s action was very draconian. It was seen by the British through the prism of longstanding folk memories of the Black Death. Thus, it was regarded with far more fear than other lethal diseases such as cholera,” says Kidambi. As the plague spread across India, so did resistance, assuming graver dimensions, notably with the assassination of Walter Rand, Poona’s plague commissioner, in 1897. One consequence was the arrest of the nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak for sedition.
Tilak was a fierce critic of the British administration’s plague measures in Poona, denouncing them as tyrannical in his newspaper Kesari in June 1897. A week later, Rand was shot dead. Officials believed that the incendiary nature of Tilak’s articles were to blame for the assassination, and arrested him on grounds of “disaffection” towards the government. Tilak was jailed at the Byculla House of Correction, where the plague had already broken out (incidentally, this jail is currently the Byculla women’s prison, where an inmate tested positive for COVID-19 and where activists Sudha Bharadwaj and Shoma Sen are currently held in the Bhima Koregaon case).
The Byculla House of Correction turned into a site for anti-plague inoculation trials, carried out by Ukrainian bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine. Inoculating himself with the vaccine, Haffkine also administered it on 147 jail inmates. Ramanna notes that by October 1897, 8,142 persons were inoculated, including 77 leading citizens. Tilak and the Aga Khan were among them. The British government relaxed its anti-plague offensive from 1900. But certain habits lived on. “One practice that became common in the early 1900s was for entire communities to move to camps on the outskirts of urban settlements during the winter months, seen as particularly dangerous,” says Kidambi.
In grappling with the plague, the British ended up reshaping the city. The Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) was set up in November 1898 to let “the fresh breezes of the sea into the congested lungs of Bombay”, as Lord Curzon put it. It did so by clearing residential and commercial areas to make way for large east-west boulevards, such as Princess Street at Marine Lines and Sandhurst Road. It introduced one standard of light and ventilation, advocating that every living room have minimum external space that would allow light to fall at “an angle of 63.5 degrees”.
“For the first time, a planning entity was brought into existence with executive powers that hadn’t existed before,” says Nikhil Rao, associate professor of history at Wellesley College, US. The BIT undertook urgent measures to clear poor “blighted” neighbourhoods residents, starting with Nagpada, and this became a prototype for today’s slum rehabilitation programmes. It also developed the areas of Dadar, Sion, Matunga and Wadala — already parts of the city but mainly agricultural lands and villages — into aspirational suburbs. The BIT wanted to attract residents of the “slums” of Nagpada, Agripada, and Pydhonie to the new sites, thus alleviating the overcrowding in the south, Rao writes in his book House, But No Garden: Apartment Living in Bombay’s Suburbs (2012).
Bombay changed mostly for the better, but also for the worse. The BIT has often been criticised for uprooting more people than it rehoused through its slum clearance schemes. Kidambi notes in his 2007 book The Making of an Indian Metropolis that by 1918, the BIT’s schemes had displaced 64,000 people, of which only 14,000 were re-housed.
The plague committee had warned that if the BIT didn’t manage to provide adequate housing, rents would rise and the problem of overcrowding would only worsen — all of which came to pass in Bombay. It’s a reminder from a not-so-distant past: how Mumbai handles COVID-19 will shape the anxieties of the city of the future