Plague and Photography in Colonial Burma

I recently stumbled across some fascinating photographs of colonial measures taken to arrest the spread of bubonic plague in Mandalay in 1906 through the online archive of medical history images available through the Wellcome Trust, London.

V0029675 A group of people being inoculated against the plague in a b

V0029676 An outdoor examination of a plague patient in Mandalay. Phot

These photographs show Burmese residents apparently willingly submitting themselves to British medicine. In the top photo a group are receiving inoculations  and in the following image a man is being examined for symptoms. The photos were taken by Criouleansky & Marshall, a company who took many photos of European and Burmese dignitaries in Upper Burma in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Their repertoire was mostly made up of the usual shots of tribal groups, Burmese women, and Buddhist monks that were the stock-in-trade of colonial depictions of Burma. More of their photos are held at the British Library.

The images would have been quite widely seen in Britain as they were printed in the influential illustrated weekly newspaper The Graphic on June 23, 1906. The previous time Burma had received such coverage was probably twenty years earlier during the war that followed the annexation of Upper Burma and its absorption into British India. In those earlier images, Burma was initially portrayed as being liberated from a tyrannical regime, and later, as guerrilla resistance to the British intensified, as suffering at the hands of violent, degraded bandits. Twenty years on and these pictures of anti-plague measures, taken in the former heartland of the now fallen Konbaung dynasty, were no doubt intended to reassure readers of The Graphic that the violent, and costly, imposition of colonial rule was worth it. If the war-time images depicted the need for an imperial order, these plague photos portrayed that newly established order functioning successfully. The images below of colonial officials going about their business fighting the disease give the impression that there was a rational and orderly bureaucratic response to what was a major global plague pandemic.

V0029680 A man sitting at a table examining passports, during a plagu

V0029678 A group of men taking notes at a table, during a plague epid

But these photographs are misleading. According to Judith Richell’s study of demography in colonial Burma, in 1906 almost nine thousand people died from plague in the colony. The number may in fact have been even higher given that the local population attempted to hide victims of the disease to escape the state’s intrusive anti-plague policies. When cases of plague were discovered, the sufferer’s clothes were burned, their family were segregated from the rest of the population, and their homes were chemically disinfected. Drastic as they were, these measures were ineffective in actually arresting the spread of the disease. The vaccinations being administered were presumably those developed by Waldemar Haffkine, who worked in British India. Although they seemed at the time to have had some impact reducing the risk of infection, they were only effective against certain forms of plague and came with severe side-effects. Despite the orderly calm of the photographs, anti-plague measures were intrusive, contested and ineffectual. Moreover, Burma’s incorporation into British India and thus further into global trading networks probably contributed to the arrival of plague in the first place.

In response to the outbreak of plague, the Government of Burma introduced reforms to its sanitation policies, although some ad hoc and piecemeal arrangements had been in place since the 1870s. But what I find interesting is how sanitized the photographs are. When put in the context of inevitable popular fear during the epidemic as well as contests over the alien, intrusive but unhelpful colonial treatments,  the photographs seem, to me, quite troubling. Thinking about how the first two photographs were arranged and staged raises question marks over how consensual these medical interventions were. Are there police officers and village headmen just out of the frame? Perhaps. These photos, I think, might tell us less about the plague epidemic and more about colonial power.

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