"Hong Kong - Taipingshan neighbourhood - street walled and evacuated due to numerous plague cases"
From plague diary of Alexandre Yersin, who discovered the plague bacillus in July 1894; Taipingshan concentrated a large number of cases of the 1894 plague outbreak in Hong Kong. Photograph by Alexandre Yersin
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.
Plague arrived for the first time in the British colony of Hong Kong in the spring of 1894. The first outbreak to be widely recognised at the time as part of the third plague pandemic (which biologically originated in Yunnan) the Hong Kong epidemic led to the discovery of the pathogenic agent of plague (the bacterium Yersinia pestis) by the Pasteurian doctor Alexandre Yersin. Neither Yersin nor other leading scientists in the field at the time, were however able to ascertain the transmission path of the disease. At the same time, British colonial authorities established draconian measures for stamping out the disease. These led to conflict with Chinese medical authorities and the Chinese population of the colony which was particularly targeted by house-to-house visitation and other intrusive and destructive measures of epidemic control. In charge of these measures, the Shropshire Regiment’s so-called Whitewash Brigade was credited by the British as putting a stop to the outbreak. However, plague would keep returning to Hong Kong for decades, establishing a seasonal pattern (spring-summer).