Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Plague Ports

Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901

Myron Echenberg
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 366
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Plague Ports
    Book Description:

    A century ago, the third bubonic plague swept the globe, taking more than 15 million lives. Plague Ports tells the story of ten cities on five continents that were ravaged by the epidemic in its initial years: Hong Kong and Bombay, the Asian emporiums of the British Empire where the epidemic first surfaced; Sydney, Honolulu and San Francisco, three pearls of the Pacific; Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro in South America; Alexandria and Cape Town in Africa; and Oporto in Europe.Myron Echenberg examines plague's impact in each of these cities, on the politicians, the medical and public health authorities, and especially on the citizenry, many of whom were recent migrants crammed into grim living spaces. He looks at how different cultures sought to cope with the challenge of deadly epidemic disease, and explains the political, racial, and medical ineptitudes and ignorance that allowed the plague to flourish. The forces of globalization and industrialization, Echenberg argues, had so increased the transmission of microorganisms that infectious disease pandemics were likely, if not inevitable.This fascinating, expansive history, enlivened by harrowing photographs and maps of each city, sheds light on urbanism and modernity at the turn of the century, as well as on glaring public health inequalities. With the recent outbreaks of SARS and avian flu, and ongoing fears of bioterrorism, Plague Ports offers a necessary and timely historical lesson.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2282-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Illustrations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. PART 1: Belle Époque and Bubonic Plague

    • [PART 1: Introduction]
      (pp. 1-14)

      To mark the dawn of a new century and to serve as an epilogue to the old, the nations of the world gathered in the summer of 1900 at the grandiose Paris Exposition. Covering 336 acres from the slopes of Trocadero to both sides of the Seine and offering 80,000 exhibits, Expo 1900 attracted the astonishing number of 51 million people, a figure never matched before or since by world’s fairs. Royal visitors included the monarchs of Sweden, Belgium, Greece, and Persia. French President Loubet entertained no fewer than 21,000 French mayors, many dressed in regional costumes, at a banquet...

  7. PART 2: Asian Beginnings

    • 1 An Unexampled Calamity: Hong Kong, 1894
      (pp. 16-46)

      In the mainland city of Canton, the daughter-in-law of a Qing military notable named General Wong woke up one morning early in January 1894 with a high fever and a very painful swelling in the inguinal region. Her wealthy family consulted a Chinese physician who prescribed heavy doses of costly bear’s gall, but for unexplained reasons they also sought out a second opinion from an unusual source. On January 16, Mary Niles, an American missionary physician living in Canton, examined the young woman and provisionally diagnosed typhus fever. Two days later the woman lapsed into a coma, yet when Dr....

    • 2 City of the Plague: Bombay, 1896
      (pp. 47-78)

      On September 23, 1896, in a house near the Masjid bridge in Mandvi District, Bombay, an Indian physician named A. G. Viegas reached an alarming conclusion. As theBombay Gazetteput it three days later, Viegas determined that the high fever and large tumors he had discovered on one of his patients signaled “a genuine case” of bubonic plague. Dr. Viegas was a well-connected private practitioner, a member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation and the Standing Committee, and he knew what was required of him. No doubt he also realized that as the messenger of bad tidings and an Indian...

  8. PART 3: Plague at the Doors of Europe

    • [PART 3: Introduction]
      (pp. 79-82)

      From the moment bubonic plague resurfaced in Hong Kong in 1894, international concerns arose that this old scourge would emulate cholera as a global menace. Plague’s devastating assault on India two years later magnified these fears. Though not alone, France was especially vocal in blaming lax British sanitary doctrines. One of the most outspoken critics was the distinguished French public health physician Adrien Proust (1834–1903), father of the writer Marcel, professor of medicine at the University of Paris, member of the Académie de médecine, and for years a leading French delegate to a series of international sanitary conferences. An...

    • 3 The Plague Has at Last Arrived: Alexandria, 1899
      (pp. 83-106)

      When Aristide Valassopoulo, chief physician of the Greek Hospital in Alexandria, arrived for work on May 2, 1899, he was called to examine a delirious twenty-two-year-old Greek grocer’s assistant who had been admitted earlier that morning with a high fever and an intensely painful swelling in his groin. “I thought immediately it was plague,” Valassopoulo later wrote, but two weeks elapsed before laboratory tests confirmed that the plague had indeed arrived.¹

      It came as no surprise to many in Alexandria, not to mention others around the world, that the third plague pandemic had chosen to call at one of the...

    • 4 They Have a Love of Clean Underlinen and of Fresh Air: Porto, 1899
      (pp. 107-130)

      Just two weeks after plague was officially declared in Alexandria,Y. pestiswas making its first visit to Portugal in more than three centuries. A forty-seven-year-old immigrant worker from Galicia in Spain named Gregorio Blanco and at least eight other Galician stevedores had spent the day of June 5, 1899, at the Porto docks unloading a wheat shipment of unspecified origin. Blanco then made his way along the dingy, narrow lanes and alleys of Porto’s riverfront district of Sao Nicolau to his rooming house at 88 Fonte-Taurina Street, where he took to his bed complaining of a sharp pain in...

  9. PART 4: South American Settings

    • [PART 4: Introduction]
      (pp. 131-132)

      The two metropolises of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro are contrasting studies inbelle époqueSouth America. Buenos Aires, the capital and leading port of Argentina, is situated on the western shore of the River Plate estuary and in 1900 was one of the largest and most modern cities in the world. Its residents proudly called their city the “Paris of South America,” for it had enjoyed a lavish building spree, funded by newly minted Argentine millionaires who had grown rich on exports of wheat and beef to Europe and who caused their country to become known the world...

    • 5 A Bubonic Plague Epidemic Does Not Exist in This Country: Buenos Aires, 1900
      (pp. 133-155)

      New arrivals to Buenos Aires could not afford most of the city’s numerous new attractions, but they would certainly have noticed the large plazas and parks and the grandiose buildings and probably also that the city was a work in progress. Conventional Argentine historiography has praised the public works campaign launched in the 1880s by the mayor of Buenos Aires, Torcuato de Alvear. Even though Alvear’s effort has gained mythic status for having given birth to modern Buenos Aires, revisionist historians like Liernur and Silvestri, or Robert have argued persuasively that this modernization was marked by increasingly great social inequality...

    • 6 The Victory of Hygiene, Good Taste, and Art: Rio de Janeiro, 1900
      (pp. 156-182)

      There are two opposing narratives of Brazil’s experience with bubonic plague. The first describes how a brilliant young physician and bacteriologist named Oswaldo Cruz heroically triumphed over bubonic plague in the course of establishing Brazil as one of the world’s leading centers of tropical medicine. The second narrative is the revisionist interpretation of Cruz and his medical associates as arrogant elitists bent on imposing public health reform on an unwilling urban public, most of them embarrassingly poor and many of them Afro-Brazilian.¹ In navigating between these two versions, this chapter examines the complex conjuncture of bubonic plague, urban reform, republican...

  10. PART 5: Plague under the Stars and Stripes

    • [PART 5: Introduction]
      (pp. 183-184)

      Beginning in December 1899 and continuing on through the first three months of the new year, bubonic plague attacked in rapid succession two ports flying the American flag, Honolulu and San Francisco. Along with a visitation of plague, the cities shared several attributes. First, they were among the world’s most beautiful cities. Honolulu’s attractive location beside Diamond Head mountain on the south coast of the island of Oahu, looking out over a splendid natural harbor, made it a tourist attraction as early as 1900. San Francisco, then the largest city in the state of California and its leading metropolis, sat...

    • 7 Plague in Paradise: Honolulu, 1899/1900
      (pp. 185-212)

      Mark Twain’s tongue-in-cheek description of Hawaii overlooked the calamities that had befallen the Native Hawaiians. While epidemic and endemic disease continued to threaten this group, it also endangered the thousands of newcomers who had arrived from east and west in search of adventure, leisure, or, more often, an escape from the extreme poverty and starvation then stalking southern China and parts of Meiji Japan.

      Some of the diseases inadvertently imported by the newcomers had produced virgin-field epidemics in the islands of the Hawaiian archipelago. While authorities disagree on the scale of the die-offs, measles, whooping cough, smallpox, and eventually tuberculosis...

    • 8 Black Plague Creeps into America: San Francisco, 1900/1901
      (pp. 213-242)

      A midsized city of 350,000 in 1900, San Francisco had grown rapidly during the nineteenth century. Its original Mexican character had long since given way to a cosmopolitan one based on its many immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Japan, and China. The informal residential segregation characteristic of many North American cities resulted in the emergence of such districts as Little Italy, the Latin Quarter where the sounds of Spanish could be heard, and, at the foot of Nob Hill, some twelve city blocks making up the crowded Asian quarter of Chinatown. Here lived about ten thousand mostly male Chinese, along...

  11. PART 6: Plague under the Union Jack

    • 9 The Inhabitants of Sydney No More Go Barefoot Than Do the Inhabitants of London: Sydney, 1900
      (pp. 244-269)

      Arthur Paine was a creature of habit and a Sydneysider who had enjoyed steady work and good health. A carter employed by the Central Wharf Company, he had lived close to Darling Harbor for eight years in what inspectors described as a decent brick house at 10 Ferry Lane, in the Rocks area of Gipps Ward. Each morning during his working week, Paine transported goods arriving at Central Wharf to various city warehouses. In mid-January 1900, Paine’s luck suddenly ran out. During one of his trips from the wharf, a flea infected withY. pestisbit him on his left...

    • 10 It Is a Miracle We Are Not Visited by a Black Plague: Cape Town, 1901
      (pp. 270-302)

      On March 5, 1900, as plague epidemics were raging in Argentina, Brazil, and Australia and the day before the plague-ridden body of Wing Chung Ging was found in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the SSKilburndropped anchor at Cape Town. The ship had sailed from the plague-infected port of Rosario, Argentina, with forage for the British army. TheKilburnalso was carrying unwanted cargo. An alert medical inspector, noting that three crew members were deathly ill and that the ship’s captain had died from an unknown disease the day before the ship’s arrival in Cape Town, prevented the crew from disembarking...

  12. PART 7: Plague’s Lessons

    • [PART 7: Introduction]
      (pp. 303-312)

      The third plague pandemic was linked to a series of monumental political changes around the world. Only an environmental determinist would see plague as the causal factor, but it would also be wrong to ignore how the presence of a plague epidemic contributed to the following events.

      In Hong Kong, the British used the medical control of the plague as one of their arguments in extracting more territory on the Chinese mainland from the disintegrating Qing empire. Sun Yat-sen interpreted the devastating impact of plague on southern China as incontrovertible evidence of the need to overthrow the incompetent Qing dynasty....

  13. Appendix
    (pp. 313-314)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 315-330)
  15. Index
    (pp. 331-348)
  16. About the Author
    (pp. 349-350)