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The "Globalization" of Disease? India and the Plague

From: Journal of World History
Volume 12, Number 1, Spring 2001
pp. 131-153 | 10.1353/jwh.2001.0005

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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 131-153

In the sphere of disease, so it often seems, "globalization" began relatively early. According to Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the first "paroxysm" of the "microbian unification of the world" occurred between about 1300 and 1650. This was the era of the plague of the Black Death; the era, too, of the catastrophically rapid spread of smallpox, measles, and syphilis over much of the known world. A growth in human movement, through conquest, trade and travel, is seen as the key factor in this process.

A further "paroxysm" of disease occurred in the earlier nineteenth century, with the seeming bursting forth of cholera from its Indian homeland; again, human journeyings came to be seen as a major reason for its spread. The pandemic influenza of 1918-19 followed in the wake of troop movements associated with the last months of World War I; now, after a mid-twentieth-century period of inflated optimism resulting from the coming of antibiotics, we have renewed and growing fears -- in some quarters, anyway -- about the possibilities of rapid global transmission of epidemic disease. The world-wide reaction to the outbreaks of what is now generally said to have been plague in India in 1994 reminds us that folk memories of the sudden spread of disease -- from the Black Death onwards -- are still, understandably, very powerful.

At the very end of the nineteenth century, and in the early twentieth century, another series of outbursts of plague -- first in China and Hong Kong, then in India, and then sporadically elsewhere -- for a time inspired similar fears. India, the most heavily affected country, probably lost at least twelve and a half million people from plague in the years 1896-1918; more if the years of plague's extended "decline" in India, up to and after the second world war, are taken into consideration.

Much of our understanding, as historians, of the more scientific aspects of plague and its diffusion still tends to be derived from comparatively early studies of this Indian experience -- in particular, the reports of what is commonly called the Plague Research Commission, published between 1906 and 1914 in supplements to the Journal of Hygiene. For example, not very many years ago Ole Benedictow to quite a large extent found in those reports a model of what plague should be like, a template against which to judge reports of "plague" in medieval and early modern Europe. Benedictow's work is extraordinarily wide ranging; his Nordic case studies are meticulously argued. But, like many a writer on the subject, he assumes that the nature of plague has been basically constant over long periods of time. This assumption may no longer be altogether viable. Indeed, even before Benedictow's work began to appear in English, W. F. Bynum had trenchantly criticized the "presentism" of "the assumption that plague in fourteenth-century Europe should have behaved like plague in twentieth-century India."

But such a critique has within it another assumption: that we really understand the nature of plague in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century India. This article suggests that it may still be possible to obtain the occasional new clue about the disease from a rereading of some of the earliest reports of this Indian visitation -- reports, that is, that predate the investigations of the Plague Research Commission. More emphatically, it is argued that the historian must take cognizance of ideas on the roles of fleas and rodents in the spread of plague that have developed since 1906-14, especially, perhaps, those that have become of increased relevance as a result of the unexpected "return" of plague to India in 1994. It is asserted, finally, that we must pay close attention to recent advances in the study of the nature of the plague pathogen itself. Notions originating to quite a considerable extent between 1906 and 1914 about the role of human beings in the spread of plague -- over India, over the world, and over the centuries -- are certainly not rejected outright. But they are, in some cases, queried.

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What is this understanding of plague -- its origin and its diffusion -- that is largely derived from the experience of...



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