Posted by James Harper on 8/28/2013 / Labels: american history
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It was very different in Honolulu on the more populous (though still small) island of Oahu, where the disease arrived somewhat earlier. In "Plague and Fire," University of Oregon historian James Mohr has done a masterly job of sorting out a complicated situation.
The world was -- again -- in the grip of a pandemic in the late 1890s, and the disease hit Hawaii just in the middle of two extraordinary changes, one political, one scientific.
Hawaii had been annexed by the United States, although its Territorial government was not yet organized and the Republic government was still running things.
And scientific doctors were finally about to understand plague. The bacillus had been discovered five years earlier, though the vector, rat fleas, was not proven until around 1905.
People reacted to the outbreak of plague, as they always had, with fear, compassion and opportunism.
Three physicians, Nathaniel Emerson, Francis Day and Clifford Wood, were in a position to react as no one ever had before in the centuries of the Black Death. They were the effective members of the Honolulu Board of Health, and as adherents of the new bacteriological approach to epidemic disease, they felt confident they could eradicate the disease, not merely ameliorate its effects.
It was a brave opinion, as equally modern doctors were failing to do that in places like Hong Kong. Emerson, Day and Wood, however, were given dictatorial powers, and Hawaii's scientifically-minded president, Sanford Dole, insulated them, as much as possible, from political pressures.
For half a year, the doctors ran Honolulu, spending most of the money in the treasury, restricting civil liberties and destroying property.
Though Mohr does not say so, it probably was Honolulu's cosmopolitan conflicts that made success possible.
In Bombay or Hong Kong, scientific medicos were opposed by unified, antiscientific cultures.
In Honolulu, the up-to-date haole (white) doctors were supported by the Japanese doctors, also Western-trained. Emerson, Day and Wood were opposed by most Chinese doctors and by the older, unscientific generation of American and European physicians.
The plague started in Chinatown, a slum housing around 5,000 people, not all Chinese.
Public health measures had to take account of cultural differences. Chinese objected to cremating plague victims as a public health measure, Japanese did not, for example.
The residents of Chinatown had a well-founded suspicion of the motives of the white elites. There were plenty in each community who saw the plague as a commercial opportunity.
The burning of most of Chinatown was not the board's policy, which was to burn individual buildings where plague occurred.
As Mohr says, they might eventually have burned Chinatown lot by lot, but it was a fluke of weather that burned most of it in one day.
Though partly mistaken in its medical theory, the approach had the virtue of working. Deaths were limited to a few score.
Mohr has mined a large store of contemporary documents and, just as informative, the oral tradition of Chinatown that has been diligently recorded by a handful of local historians.
"Plague and Fire" reveals, in its intricacies, a great deal about what Hawaii was like as it entered its modern era; and something about how we came to behave as we do today.
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