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The 1897 Bombay Plague in the writings of Pandita Ramabai

By Subarna Bhattacharya

A reference to the 1897 Bombay Plague epidemic is found, almost invariably, in every western writing of contemporary times, be it governmental records, survey-reports, or travel-narratives by western travellers in India. The tumultuous condition, following the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, which the colonial government had to deal with, has been recounted by many western travellers who happened to visit the country at that time. George Lambert, an American Mennonite missionary-traveller, on his visit to India in 1897, to oversee the relief work, called India of the time “a horror-stricken empire.”

In the book, India: The Horror-stricken Empire (1898), Lambert, speaking of Bombay, after the city had been officially declared to be under the outbreak of plague, wrote that the streets, now, at night-time, looked like a deserted village. A city, which used to be as noisy at night as it was during the daytime, was suddenly put to a dead sleep, with rows of empty houses with the dreadful plague-mark on their gates, notifying that the disease had claimed lives residing in them. At times, fire burning in front of a door indicated the presence of the disease in the house, and in some places, the shanties were deliberately burnt down to prevent spread. In his opinion, the spread of the fatal disease was grossly accelerated by the ignorance of the people and their prejudices against medical examination, which made the task of the colonial government ghastly difficult.

The plight of municipal authorities was manifold as they fought two battles parallelly: one against the contagion, and the other against the superstitions of the natives. Ill-informed about the scourge that an epidemic usually brings, and, in general, lacking a scientific temperament and sense of hygiene, the people callously kept information about their family members’ sicknesses or death from the authorities, in a bid to avoid hospitalization or segregation in quarantine camps. Sometimes more than the fear of the pestilence, rumours and mistrust loomed large; one of them was that, for medical experimentations, forceful hospitalization was being done to people, even the un-infected, to remove their organs like liver or kidney through surgeries. Cloaked by their misjudgement of the scale of disaster an epidemic can cause and guided by their underlying suspicion about the motives of their colonial masters, the natives rallied in their refusal to cooperate with the Plague Committee.

Being left with no other choice, the Plague Committee’s task force resorted to violence, raiding houses, to check for infected bodies, even searching the women’s quarters, laying bare the ‘andarmahal’ of respectable households. As Lambert’s eyewitness account had it, the officials braved the deadly disease and continued working, in spite of all local opposition, displaying an undaunted spirit and unflinching work-ethic. Often breaking open closed doors, they would discover rotting dead bodies, seeped in filth, stench, and vermin. One such account portrayed, in gruesome detail, the story of the officials’ forced entry into a barred room, only to find, among many plague-victims, the corpse of a plague-stricken mother, on the floor, with her baby in her arms, surrounded by dead rats. Lambert regretfully commented that the woman, with her deep-seated prejudices against being treated by “European heathen” doctors, chose this abominable death for herself and her child – such was the natives’ blindness and ignorance.

It is perhaps not so surprising that most Western missionary travellers, who visited India during the time, shared Lambert’s gaze. For instance, Rev. Father Page of Society of St. John the Evangelist of Cowley, England (who had regular connections with India, especially with the missionary set-up in Pune) was also of the same opinion when he witnessed the plague situation. Like Lambert, he too reported that the uppermost concern of the natives was not so much their own well-being as it was fighting any form of defilement, by preserving caste-sanctity and warding off alien touch. Rather than availing timely medical assistance, what the natives did was to indulge in rituals, prayers, and animal sacrifices, with the hope of appeasing the gods, for they believed that it was the wrath of the gods which brought such pestilence upon humankind. Sharing the same gaze, both these western missionary travellers strongly criticized the native beliefs, their superstitions, elaborate religious performances, and how the people guardlessly allowed themselves to be exploited by the predatorial priests. According to them, it was heathenism that aggravated the crisis. They felt that keeping away from idolatry and filthy habits like ritualistic river-bathing and such others, which are endorsed by the Hindu religion, would do immense good to the natives, as it was unclean and unhygienic living that caused the plague bacilli to multiply.

On one level, if this sounded like a scientifically grounded view, on another level, this clearly came from a hierarchical understanding of religions and faith. Both the religious preachers made it a point to tell that, with God’s infinite mercy and grace, the Christian missionary population in India had been successful in evading the disease, although, as field workers, they were almost all the time exposed to the infection. Whereas this was a miracle of a religion of higher order, this was also a proof of racial and intellectual superiority. Lambert, in his book, was full of praise of the Empire’s capacity for good governance and the colonial government’s successful implementation of plague-control measures. Interestingly, while describing the efficiency of the government hospitals, Lambert, in a very cursory manner, mentioned about the indignance and protest made by some notable Indian figures, like Pandita Ramabai, the woman activist and social reformer, against the plague-control systems of the government. Although he passingly talked about the letter Ramabai wrote to The Bombay Guardian, in the context of the Bombay plague, he carefully avoided those parts of her writing where she brutally attacked the colonial government for its negligence. For Lambert, Ramabai fitted better as an Indian Christian convert figure who, inspired by missionary teachings, had dedicated herself to humanitarian work. Thus, extensive parts of his book were given to Ramabai’s account of her famine relief-services (which was almost at the same time as the plague), but there was a deliberate omission of the occasion when she was one of the colonial machinery’s fiercest critics.

When the 1897 Bubonic Plague broke out, Ramabai was already a powerful female voice in the public space. Her travels in England and America had, by then, made her known in the western world as a bold feminist social reformer from India, a crusader for women’s rights. In 1889, following a massive fundraising in America, she had founded the Sharada Sadan in Bombay, a shelter-home for destitute women and widows, which got her much recognition. Being such a well-intentioned project, it naturally had earned her the support of her fellow social reformers (at least initially), and the publicity of her work in contemporary newspapers brought her into public gaze. Actually, her work towards women’s emancipation had started more than a decade ago through her public lectures on the subject of female education.

In 1882, she had founded the Arya Mahila Samaj, a women’s association to promote social awareness and conduct welfare activities. Also, it was in the same year that, considering her first-hand experience of actively working in the field of women’s education, she was called to testify before the Hunter Commission on Education. The testimony produced such far-reaching impact that the colonial government was compelled to take immediate cognizance of the issues, and a ‘National Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India’ was formed, commonly known as the Countess of Dufferin Fund. Thus, one can infer that in a time generally characterized by women’s invisibility in the public space, Ramabai had a palpable presence in it, being part of both the discourses of Indian social reformism and the colonial government’s welfare projects.

When the epidemic did spread from Bombay to Pune in 1897, Ramabai was instructed by the city magistrate to evacuate Sharada Sadan, the shelter-home, which had, by then, been shifted to Pune from Bombay. She was, at that time, already grappling with another overwhelming situation – that of the famine. In a place called Kedgaon, near Pune, she had started a shelter-home for famine victims which was, then, housing more than 2000 people, both men and women, all of whom she had rescued from the surrounding plague-ridden districts. When the inmates of Sharada Sadan had to be shifted and brought to the Kedgaon establishment via train, Ramabai got busy escorting them and securing them in the new place. The draconian measures taken by the Plague Committee to control the spread of the epidemic had, by then, already created much public furore. Allegedly, in the name of inspection, British soldiers were invading the sanctity of the Indian homes and ransacking even the women’s quarters of the houses. Teams of doctors, often just provoked by suspicions, were outraging the modesty of the native women with random physical examinations. It was in this backdrop that a terrible incident reportedly happened to one of the widows in Ramabai’s shelter-home. It was following this incident that she wrote the controversial letter, alleging the Government Plague Hospital with serious negligence and, even, malpractices.

The said “Letter to the Editor”, dated May 18, 1897, was published by the liberal newspaper, The Bombay Guardian. According to the incidents reported in the Letter, many of Ramabai’s famine survivors were suffering from diseases like itches, mumps, stomach disorder, and on doctor’s advice were sent to the Sassoon hospital, Pune, for treatment. One of them was a girl, who, owing to her condition of high fever, was suspected of plague, and was transferred to the Plague Hospital to be kept under quarantine. When, after a period of six months, Ramabai herself went to enquire at Sassoon Hospital, the girl was first reported to be dead and afterwards, some other sources, reported her to be alive but ‘kept’ by a watchman of the hospital. However, not able to find her and being baffled by the contradictory statements of the hospital authorities about the mysterious disappearance of the girl, Ramabai kept on digging, only to suspect that, lacking any strict supervision, some very evil practices were happening in the hospital. With the concerned authorities taking no cognizance of the matter, she was compelled to publicize it through the newspaper. Most regretfully she wrote, “I shall never let a girl come alone to this dreadful place while I have a little strength in me. God help the young women who may be obliged to come to such a place as this and may He open the eyes of our City Magistrate and his colleagues to see the evils resulting from their heartless unjust rule” (Kosambi, 2016).[1] The Letter also complained about the lack of provisions and even basic infrastructure in the plague hospitals and segregation camps, including that in the services provided to the patients’ families. Lastly, she mourned the indifferent attitude of the British government towards the Indian subjects and their shocking complacency; rather than solving the problems, they were busy advertising the success of their plague control project.

Quite expectedly, the Letter had repercussions because of its anti-government stand and vehement and resentful rhetoric. Earlier also, there had been many occasions when Ramabai’s writings had been overtly critical of the colonial government. Now, at the time of the Bombay Plague mayhem of 1896-97, she was one of the few prominent figures of the time who took a public stand and voiced a public resistance. The Letter had such far-reaching effects that the word of it reached England and it was read out in the British Parliament, House of Commons, two months after its publication. On the other hand, back in India, the epidemic’s raging mortality rate, the panic that ensued, and the mounting communal and racial tensions, by then, had unleashed a riotous condition. It culminated finally in the murder of the Special Plague Commissioner, W.C. Rand and his military escort Lt. Ayerst, by the Chapekar brothers in Pune, in June 1897, on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. With events taking such a deadly turn, many quarters of Ramabai’s audience began to have the opinion that the Letter was not just one of simple nationalistic resistance, but that it had far deeper implications. The publication of the Letter was a dangerous act of sedition, done irresponsibly, leading to serious political consequences. One vociferous critic was Sister Geraldine, Ramabai’s godmother, from St. Mary’s the Virgin, England, a staunch supporter of imperialism and someone well-known for her racist views. Even her other missionary friends from the western world, who had earlier been supportive of her actions, like Ms. Dorothea Beale of Cheltenham, was expressly critical, on this occasion, and viewed her Letter as rash and provocative. According to Sister Geraldine, Ramabai had “added fuel to the fire by a childish, sensational and seditious letter” and unthinkingly worsened an already volatile situation.[2] Reportedly, the debate surrounding the Letter continued for a while through bitter altercations between Ramabai and the British officials, like the Governor of Bombay, and she was time and again pressurized to make a public announcement of withdrawal from her previous stand.

Thus, in colonialist historiography, the Bombay Plague years of 1896 and 1897 marked a bitterly agonised time. It was as much fractured by ugly racial, caste, and communal tensions as it was by the scourge of the epidemic. Not only was it a time of pestilence, disease, sickness, and death, but it was also a politically rough terrain of coercion and resistance. The impression one gathers from reading the western missionary writings of the time, like George Lambert’s or governmental survey-reports, is strikingly different from the pictures that surface in Ramabai’s eyewitness accounts. Also, the manner in which they countered each other, in terms of representations of factual accounts, provokes a more politicised reading of the texts. While Ramabai’s testimony was a nationalist challenge to colonial power, Lambert’s book clearly served the missionary agenda by portraying the crisis as a problem of the heathen world. It is hardly surprising that Ramabai’s Letter cost her the friendship of some western missionaries, like Sister Geraldine and Ms. Dorothea Beale, at least for a while. While they extended support for her famine rescue-missions and plague-work, they sternly disapproved of her defiance of the colonial diktats. Ramabai’s life had been one of confrontations and contestations, owing to the fact that her decision to convert to Christianity was in tandem with her unconditional patriotism and dedication to the cause of women’s emancipation and social reform. Surely, her 1897 Plague-Letter was one such instance when taking an ideological stand had got her into a fierce struggle with multiple bodies of power.

Photo: Wikipedia

[1] Kosambi, Meera. Pandita Ramabai. Life and landmark writings. NY: Routledge, 2016. First South Asia edition. pp 231-233.

[2] Shah, A.B. ed. The Letters and Correspondence of Pandita Ramabai. Compiled by Sister Geraldine. Bombay: Maharashtra State Board for Literature and Culture (1977), p. 238.

Dr. Subarna Bhattacharya is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, Pune. Her research interests are English literary studies, travel writing studies, women’s writing, and feminist studies. She is currently working on a minor research project on “Women’s travel writings of 19th century colonial India” as co-investigator. She has published research papers on travel writing studies. Her most recent academic publication is “Beyond Postcoloniality: Female Subjectivity and Travel in Jamaica Kincaid’s Among Flowers” in Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities. She has co-edited two anthologies, We and Our World and Soft Skills Through Literature, published by Pearson India.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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