A Dreadful Scourge: Cholera in Nineteenth Century India
Modern Asian Studies
In 1817-21, the Indian subcontinent was ravaged by a series of epidemics which marked the beginning of what has since become known as the First Cholera Pandemic. Despite their far-reaching consequences, these epidemics have received remarkably little attention and have never been considered as historical subjects in their own right. This article examines the epidemics of 1817-21 in greater detail and assesses their significance for the social and political history of the Indian subcontinent. Additionally, it examines the meanings that were attached to the epidemics in the years running up to the first appearance of cholera in the West. In so doing, the article makes comparisons between responses to cholera in India and in other contexts, and tests the applicability of concepts used in the study of epidemics in the West. It is argued that the official reaction to cholera in India was initially ameliorative, in keeping with the East India Company’s response to famines and other supposedly natural disasters. However, this view was gradually supplemented and replaced by a view of cholera as a social disease, requiring preventative action. These views were initially rejected in Britain but found favour after epidemics of cholera in 1831-2. Secondly, in contrast to later epidemics, it is argued that those of 1817-21 did little to exacerbate tensions between rulers and ruled. On the rare occasions when cholera elicited a violent reaction, it tended to be intra-communal rather than anti-colonial in nature.