Deaths due to bubonic plague in India 1896-1904

The Third Plague Epidemic began in the mid-1800s in Yunnan, China, (an area that is still a natural reservoir for the Yersinia pestis bacteria) and had a huge death toll across Asia in the next century. While plague was confined to the Yunnan region for some decades, the mass displacement and social upheaval caused by the Taiping Rebellion saw millions flee the area , bringing the disease to other parts of the country. A plague epidemic then emerged in British-controlled Hong Kong in 1894, where merchants then unknowingly transported infected rats to other parts of the empire along various trade routes.

Arrival in Bombay

The first Indian cases were reported in Bombay (present-day Mumbai), and the Bombay Presidency suffered more losses than any other region in India (although there were some individual years where the state of Punjab reported more deaths). As with most disease or famine outbreaks in the region, the British authorities were slow to react, and their eventual response was in many ways too late. In some cases authorities even facilitated the spread of the disease; with multiple accounts of the military forcing healthy people into quarantine camps, evicting and burning homes of the afflicted, or by using such excessive force that the public would refuse medical help.

Spread in India

Lack of understanding among the Indian public was also to their own detriment. Some religions in India forbid the killing of rats, while some people simply refused to acknowledge that they were sick. As the plague in Bombay spiraled out of control, many fled to other parts of the country, taking the plague with them. It is estimated that there were over one million deaths in India by 1902, and almost one million further deaths in 1903 alone. The first four months of 1904 also saw over half a million deaths, almost matching the entire total for 1902. Plague would remain endemic to India for the next few decades, and there are varying reports of up to ten or twelve million total plague deaths in this time. The public health measures taken to combat the plague in the early twentieth century would mark the beginnings of India's public health system, and some of the quarantine measures put in place by the colonial government were even used in 2020 during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Total number bubonic plague deaths by region in India from 1896 to 1904

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Source

Release date

May 2020

Region

India

Survey time period

1896 to 1904

Supplementary notes

*1897 is for deaths from September 1896 until the end of 1897.
1904 if for deaths from January until the end of April only.

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