Global Plague in the Early Twentieth Century: Yersenia Pestis, Imperialism, and Conflict in Comparative Perspective

AHA Session 34
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom North (Marriott Wardman Park)
Daniel Rodriguez, Kenyon College
Lester K. Little, Smith College

Session Abstract

Like few other diseases, plague evokes a sense of dread and ancient horror. Since the medieval Black Death that decimated the populations of Central Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, the disease has been associated with extraordinary mortality rates and the breakdown of social order. Centuries after the height of the Black Death pandemic, plague reappeared in 1894 in British-occupied Hong Kong, whereupon British steamships aided in its travel, with the help of infected rat stowaways, to major ports throughout the world. Unlike previous pandemics, this “third pandemic” of the plague was a truly global phenomenon, quickly spreading around the world from its origins in Central Asia, to Bombay in 1896, Alexandria, Porto and Honolulu in 1899, to Sydney, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco and Glasgow in 1900.  The new pandemic also appeared at the height of the age of empire and during a period of unprecedented medical reform; while the sickness and death caused by Yersenia Pestis were always primarily local in their effects, disease control efforts were shaped by new transnational medical debates, and local outbreaks had far-reaching political ramifications.

This panel brings together four scholars working on the local/transnational politics of the third pandemic, and explores how the plague sparked strikingly distinct responses in different locations in the colonial/neocolonial world. Reflecting this year’s AHA meeting’s theme of “Disagreement, Debate and Discussion,” the panel’s presentations highlight how the plague precipitated dramatically different political conflicts in early twentieth-century India, China, Cuba and Puerto Rico. In his presentation, William C. Summers explores the transimperial politics of the 1910-1911 pneumonic plague epidemic in Manchuria, examining how the plague shaped the geopolitical ambitions of both Russia and Japan in North China. Ann Zulawski examines how the 1912 San Juan outbreak exacerbated class and racial division in San Juan, as poor and Afro-Puerto Rican residents of the working class neighborhood of Puerta de Tierra were targeted by politicians and U.S. and Puerto Rican health officials. But while Afro-Puerto Ricans were the main targets of health officials in Puerto Rico, Daniel Rodriguez examines how the 1914 bubonic plague outbreak in Havana pitted Cuban health authorities against the city’s Spanish merchants.  With the outbreak initially based among the city's Spanish immigrant workers, disease control efforts were shaped by nationalist medical politics, Spanish economic clout, and U.S. neocolonial sanitary supervision of the island. Finally, Priyanka Srivastava’s presentation explores the aftermath of the 1896 bubonic plague outbreak in colonial Bombay. After the plague brought unprecedented mortality rates and a mass exodus unsettled Bombay’s industrial economy, new urban renewal programs promised sanitary and housing reforms in poor working class neighborhoods.  But despite early enthusiasm for reform, post-plague urban renewal programs accentuated class-based spatial inequalities. Together, the panelists’ new research offers a global lens on the role of the plague in shaping both local political conflicts and the politics of empire in the early twentieth century.

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