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  • Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague 1894-1901
  • Sheldon Watts
Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague 1894-1901. By Myron Echenberg (New York and London, New York University Press, 2007. xvi plus 347 pp. $24.00 PB).

This is a nicely written example of old-style medical history co-joined with an attempt to correlate a particular type of disease happenings-epidemics and near-epidemics of bubonic plague-to new-style social and cultural history. Echenburg's efforts can be judged to be most satisfactory when he deals with case-study examples from those parts of the world for which he has conducted extensive archival research (sub-Saharan Africa) or which were found on the Continent of North America where he currently lives. They are less so when he draws on classic, but unreliable, secondary sources.

As the sub-title correctly indicates, Plague Ports is "global history." Its case-studies include Hong Kong (1894); Bombay (in and after 1896); Alexandria, Egypt (in and after 1899); Porto, Portugal (in and after 1899); Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro (in and after 1900); Honolulu (in and after 1899); Sydney (in and after 1900); Cape Town, South Africa (in and after 1901); and San Francisco (in and after 1899).

North American readers seeking to confirm the old idea that history repeats itself will find his section on the Bay City particularly apt. It was a classic case of wrongful denial by those with economic and political clout. Not only did California governor Gage and the great pecuniary interests groups (the Chamber [End Page 235] of Commerce and the like) whose profits might be cut if exports were denied access to foreign ports refuse to admit to the existence of the epidemic, so too did a substantial number of medical doctors whose "private practices or public offices depended on the good-will of the Governor" and the "oligarchy of barons" who ran the state economy. Among others Echenburg cites the editor of the Pacific Medical Journal, Dr. Winslow Anderson. In August 1900 Dr. Anderson deceitfully informed readers that: "no plague-ridden ships had arrived in San Francisco, no focus of infection had ever been discovered, no diagnosis of a living case had been made, and the alleged identification of the plague bacillus may have been the result of bacteriological incompetence" [qu. pp 232-3]. In actuality, there were 39 deaths from bubonic plague in the Bay City (35 Chinese, 4 Euro-Americans) [qu p. 314].

Unfortunately, Echenburg becomes unstuck when dealing with that part of the British Empire under the direct control of the Secretaries of State for India-the sub-continent's principal west-coast port-Bombay. In so doing he looses his way when accounting for 80% of the global toll of human lives (15 million) caused by the Third Pandemic of bubonic plague. Entering the port from Hong Kong in September 1896-incoming ships were not properly inspected-in the next two decades the plague killed 12,000,000 Indian people, most of them living in the Presidency of Bombay. British carelessness in such matters was endemic and had been since 1869.

Had Echenberg checked documents found in the archives of the India Office Library and the Manuscript Room of the British Library in London, he would have found that the official British responses to bubonic plague in India were closely modeled on their responses to cholera in the years since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. From these sources he would have found that the principal British policy objective was not to bring cholera (or plague) under control (by discovering its endemic foci and snuffing them out) but rather to destroy the credibility of the International Quarantine Boards at Alexandria and Istanbul by proving that mainland European science was utterly wrong and that British "science" alone was true. As Prime Minister Lord Salisbury put it, it was inconceivable that Britain should allow her trade and commerce to be governed by any International agency.

Dating from 1820 and 1840 respectively, the two international boards to which all the principal European states and polities sent voting delegates were given a new lease...


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