A family standing in a leafy area: Bombay at the time of the plague.
The third pandemic of plague (in its bubonic and pneumonic clinical forms) struck the globe between 1894 and 1959. As Yersinia pestis spread from country to country and from continent to continent, it left behind it not only a trail of death and devastation, but also a vast visual archive. It was the first time that plague would reach and establish itself in all inhabited continents. But it was also the first time that any epidemic would be photographed. As plague spread from harbour to harbour, and amongst cities, towns and villages, so did photographs of the pandemic through reproductions in the daily and illustrated press. Rather than forming a homogeneous or linear visual narrative, these photographic documents provided diverse perspectives on the pandemic, which, more often than not, were not simply different from region to region, but in fact conflicting within any single locus of infection. Moreover this photographic production came to establish a new field of vision, what we may call “epidemic photography” which continues to inform the way in which we see, depict and imagine epidemics and their social, economic, and political impact in the age of Global Health.
The plague pandemic spread to British India in 1896 where it continued to strike at cities, towns and villages for 30 years, leading to ten million deaths. The initial outbreak affected Bombay (Mumbai), but soon spread further to Pune and Karachi, reaching Kolkata the following year. Colonial government actions to control and treat the plague outbreak were extensive, but generally ineffective and harsh, especially during the initial years. A campaign of quarantines, isolation camps, travel restrictions, demolition and disinfection of buildings was pursued, leading to massive resistance which forced colonial authorities to revise their epidemic control policy. Several international plague commissions operated in India in the first years of the epidemic, including commissions from Russia, Austria, Germany, Italy and the Institut Pasteur. The latter made a major contribution through Paul-Louis Simond’s discovery of the implication of the rat’s flea in the transmission and spread of the disease. The photographic record of the outbreak in India is international and covers a range of topics, including anti-plague measures, clinical symptoms, and the depiction of plague hospitals.