Bubonic Plague of Bombay Presidency 1896-97

The last five years of the 19th century were disastrous for India, which brought an array of misfortune and distress.

In October, 1896, the Bubonic plague, which was part of the Third Pandemic, was certified to exist in the Bombay presidency. It was endemic in some localities like Mesopotamia and some central Asian places but from there it spread to China causing 50 thousand deaths and then in Hong Kong causing 10 thousand deaths.

  • The Plague was studied at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the studies were done by a Russian Bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine.
  • Waldemar Haffkine had also developed an anti-cholera vaccine which he tried out successfully in India.
  • He was the first microbiologist who developed and used vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague. He tested the vaccines on himself and was acclaimed as “a savior of humanity”.

    The plague spread rapidly in the Bombay Presidency and people started fleeing from Mumbai, Pune and other places. In 1897, the death started dancing in Pune and the government decided to take drastic steps against the killer disease.

    There were riots in various locations due opposition to government policy of sanitary measures. The government had decided to take drastic action against the Plague and as per the Special Plague Committee’s recommendations 893 officers and men both British and native were placed under the command of Mr. WC Rand and Lieutenant Ayerst. The soldiers started house searching and the social taboos took it as a kind of oppression. The people got irked and Tilak also opposed this way of the Government’s suppression of the disease. He wrote inflammatory articles in “Kesari” his newspaper. The result was that these two officers were shot dead by some Pune youngsters.

    After this, a series of trials began and some people including Tilak were charged of sedition. Tilak was sentenced to 18 months rigorous imprison. In the court he declared:

    “Swaraj ha maza janmasidha adhikar aahe ani to mi milavinach”

    Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it.”

    This made Tilak a national Hero and when he returned from Jail, Mother India had found herself given birth to a true hero.

    The last five years of the 19th century were disastrous for India, which brought an array of misfortune and distress. In October, 1896, the Bubonic plague, which was part of the Third Pandemic, was certified to exist in the Bombay presidency. It was endemic in some localities like Mesopotamia and some central Asian places but from there it spread to China causing 50 thousand deaths and then in Hong Kong causing 10 thousand deaths. In Pune there were riots in opposition to the Government sanitary measures and the irked people shot two British officers dead. The plague also gave India’s first Swarajist Bal Gangadhar Tilak who declared that “Swaraj ha maza janmasidha adhikar aahe ani to mi milavinach”

  • The opposition of the Government policy in the Indian Press that led to the series of sedition trials. The result was that a new Press Regulation was adopted in 1898.

    The Bubonic Plague spread from Bombay Presidency to other parts of the country such as Punjab, Bengal, United Provinces and in 1905 its traces were seen in even Burma. By 1901, 4 Lakh people had died; the death toll reaches over 10 Lakh by 1905. It was on its height when in the last week of April 1905, fifty eight thousand people were reported to have killed. However, since then the number of deaths fell.

    But this was just a part of the misfortune for India. The same time was of severe famine attacks affecting several parts of India.

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