exaggeration I may assert that so far as trade and commerce
are concerned the plague has assumed the importance of
an unexampled calamity.’ So stated the dispatch
of the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir William Robinson, to
the Secretary of State for Colonies in London on 20 June
1894 . He meant that there was no other example of so
great a calamity. The calamity was a serious outbreak
of bubonic plague, which brought Hong Kong to its knees.
Strangely, although it also devastated Canton, it left
Macau largely intact. Sir William might have added that
it was a vast human tragedy as well, for several thousand
people, mostly poor Chinese, died, and more than 100,000
fled in panic to their home villages.
the disease reached Hong Kong it appears that it
broke out in Canton in January that year, and by
June it had accounted for some 80,000 deaths. Rapidly
moving down-river, it first appeared in the Tai
Ping Shan district in the early months of 1894.
At that time, Tai Ping Shan, high above Kennedy
Town to the west of Hong Kong’s built up area,
was a crowded squalid settlement of Chinese workers.
There was no water supply or sanitation, and living
conditions were utterly filthy.
officer of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry supervises
troops cleaning the streets in Tai-Ping Station
Tai Ping Shan there was panic and hysteria, for once contracted
the outcome in the great majority of cases was an agonising
death after three days of suffering. A graphic description
of the symptoms of bubonic plague was given by M. Wilm
in his Report of Plague in Hong Kong compiled in 1896.
Wilm observed that ‘at the outset of the disease
the tongue usually became swollen, bright red at the tip
and edges and was covered with a greyish white fur. Usually,
on the second or third day of the disease, the fur became
brownish or black, and dried in a crust. The tongue becomes
cracked and fissured ...The lips soon became dry and often
fissured, the mucous membrane of the mouth and the pharynx
was usually bright red. The appetite disappeared. There
was frequently uncontrollable vomiting and great thirst.’
He goes on, but the details are too distressing to relate
10th May 1894 Hong Kong was declared an infected port
and within the space of a few weeks the administration
was faced with an epidemic of great magnitude. By July
there had been 2442 deaths. Hospitals were quickly established
on board the naval ship, Hygeia, at Kennedy Town Police
Station and at the Kennedy Town glass works. The first
two were run by European staff whilst the third was manned
by Chinese personnel of the Tung Wah hospital. The Governor
told his superior in London that ‘it was deemed
advisable to give the Chinese doctors a free hand at first.
In any case, it is difficult to persuade the Chinese to
report cases of sickness and their foolish and violent
prejudice against Western medical men is quite sufficient
to induce them, as they certainly did for the first fortnight
or three weeks of the existence of the plague, not only
to secrete their sick but often to desert their plague-stricken
friends and relations after death.’
Government’s means of dealing with the crisis was
severe. No-one then knew how plague was transmitted. The
only certain thing was that it spread rapidly. Insanitary
conditions were thought to be the cause, so 7000 people
were evicted from their homes. 350 houses were condemned
and sealed off and several boatloads of patients were
sent to Canton.
army was sent in to cleanse and disinfect the fetid
slums and to collect the dead. The 1st Battalion
of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry was
stationed in Hong Kong at the time, and when the
plague broke out, volunteers were called for to
work on plague relief. About 600 of the 1,000 men
did so. The unit history tells us that ‘the
work was unpleasant in the extreme – searching
narrow backstreets and overcrowded houses for plague
victims, tending the sick in makeshift isolation
hospitals and disinfecting the houses and streets
with chloride of lime and whitewash.
of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry supervises
the removal of a coffin of a plague victim, carried
on a pole by coolies.
of the most unpleasant tasks faced by the volunteers was
the location and removal of the dead, searching dark houses
and carrying away the bodies to be buried in mass graves.The
volunteers of the KSLI lived in quarantine in separate
tented camps and were given extra rum rations to help
them cope with the work. Remarkably, only one officer
and nine men of the regiment fell ill and only two actually
died of the plague.’
soldiers found unimaginable horrors. They were on one
occasion accompanied by a 28-year-old Scottish doctor,
James Lowson, Acting Superintendent of the Civil Hospital.
He wrote, ‘On a miserable sodden matting soaked
with abominations there were four forms stretched out.
One was dead, the tongue black and protruding. The next
had the muscular twitchings and semicomatose condition
heralding dissolution. Another sufferer, a female child
about ten years old, lay in accumulated filth of apparently
two or three days. The fourth was wildly delirious.’
the disinfection of houses was undertaken it was
the usual practice for the occupants to be issued
with new clothes. Their own clothes, bedding, curtains
and carpets were sent to a steam disinfecting station.
The premises were then thoroughly cleaned by spraying
the walls with a solution of perchloride of mercury;
alternatively, rooms were fumigated with free chlorine
obtained by the addition of diluted sulphuric acid
to chlorinated lime. Finally, the floors and furniture
were scrubbed with Jeyes fluid, a well-known disinfectant,
and the walls were lime-washed. During these operations
the occupants were given temporary accommodation
on Chinese marriage boats anchored off Stonecutters
Island. Other measures taken included the burial
of the dead in a plague cemetery at Kennedy Town
and the regular disinfecting of all public latrines
with chlorinated lime.
newly completed Kennedy Town Glass Works was requisitioned
as a plague hospital. This looks primitive, but was
far better than conditions in the slums of Tai-Ping.
soldiers who carried out these draconian measures were
resisted fiercely, and the papers spoke of ‘plague
riots’. Violent mobs prevented the removal of patients
with plague from the Tung Wah Hospital to a special plague
hospital, doctors had to carry pistols, and a gunboat
was needed to restore order. Placards were posted in Hong
Kong and Canton accusing the English doctors of cutting
open pregnant women and scooping out the eyes of children
in order to make medicines for the treatment of plague
victims. Race relations in Hong Kong plunged to a new
low; this was a crisis of public health, public order
and soon, an economic crisis as well, as ships stopped
entering a port that relied on trade for its existence.
the centre of the events during the Hong Kong epidemic
was Dr Lowson. A copy of his diary is in the Hong Kong
Museum of Medical Sciences. Hastily written entries tell
a terrible story, both of suffering and lack of communication
between Western and Chinese doctors. On 10 May at the
Tung Wah Hospital Lowson ‘found approximately 20
people lying there affected with the plague - all in an
advanced stage of the disease’. Most came from Tai
Ping Shan. The hospital used only Chinese traditional
medicine and was blamed by Lowson for failing to diagnose
plague cases earlier. ‘I cannot denounce this hotbed
of medical and sanitary vice in sufficiently strong terms...
a Disgrace and Danger to the Public Health of Hong Kong’.
Sanitary Board met often and Lowson’s diary reveals
that tensions were high. At one meeting, he told two Board
members ‘they were both damned cowards as they were
afraid to go to the plague areas’. He comments ‘Lockhart
[the Registrar General] and Governor are now making themselves
obnoxious – Bl [bloody] fools. They are walking
into the mire properly.’ His report was later described
as ‘an egotistical and garrulous document’,
written by someone who ‘evidently wants to make
a name for himself’.
autumn, the plague subsided, and things calmed down for
a time, but for several years it became an almost annual
occurrence usually making its appearance in February or
March reaching a peak by July and then virtually disappearing
during the autumn and winter. Over the period 1894-1901
some 8,600 persons succumbed to the disease and this represented
a mortality rate of about 95 per cent.
these later years of the plague, house to house
searches were made to detect afflicted premises
but this also proved difficult. Often, bodies were
thrown out at night by the other occupants of infected
houses so as to avoid detection and the subsequent
disinfection of the premises. In 1900, for example,
412 dead bodies were dumped in the harbour.
The soldiers of the KSLI earned the gratitude and
respect of the Hong Kong government for their work,
and a special medal was struck to honour these men
who had risked their lives fighting an unseen and
very terrible enemy.
blocks of Tai Ping Sham were torn down and rebuilt
with proper drainage & better ventilation. This
picture was taken in 1898, 4 years after the plague
was only one good outcome of the Great Plague of Hong
Kong. It is that, after so many centuries of terror and
bewilderment, an answer was finally found, in Hong Kong,
to the mystery of what caused the plague and how it spread.
Working independently, Alexandre Yersin, a Russian microbiologist,
and Kitasato Shibasaburo, a Japanese bacteriologist, identified
both the plague bacillus and discovered that it was spread
by fleas that use both black rats and humans as hosts.
Even here, there was controversy and dissension for decades,
that only ended with the name ‘pestis Yersinia’
being given to the bacillus that had brought so much death