“The one way of making people hang together is to give ’em a spell of the plague”*…
Officials in West Africa plan to erect a cordon sanitaire around areas affected by the Ebola virus. The drastic tactic—a strict quarantine encircling an infected area, allowing no residents to exit—has been only rarely used since the end of World War I… and then, as in China, for suspect reasons and of questionable effect (see here and here).
Writing at The Vault, Rebecca Onion recounts the story of Honolulu’s Chinatown inside a cordon sanitaire during an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1899-1900. In December 1899, You Chong, a 22-year-old Chinese bookkeeper, died of the disease, quickly followed by four neighbors. The Honolulu Board of Health isolated 14 blocks of the city, where ten thousand people lived.
Historian Nyan Shah writes that public health officials on the West Coast focused on Chinese and Japanese travelers in investigating the outbreak, “disregarding scientific evidence that rats were the primary conveyors of disease.” Facing the epidemic in Honolulu, officials acted on long-held stereotypes about the dirtiness of Chinese residences, turning to tactics of radical disinfection: spraying homes with carbolic acid; forcing residents to shower at public stations; throwing out belongings.
In Honolulu, officials finally escalated to fire, burning the home of one plague victim. But the blaze spread throughout the district. Historian Joseph Byrne writes that at first, after the fire burned out of control, fleeing citizens were “turned back by the National Guard and white vigilantes maintaining the cordon.” Finally, the cordonopened one exit to let people out. Eight thousand residents were displaced.
“Many bitterly insisted that the government had deliberately allowed the fire to spread,” Byrne writes, “a conviction only strengthened when one local newspaper printed an editorial celebrating the fire for wiping out the plague while simultaneously clearing off valuable real estate.”…
Read the whole– and horrifying– tale, and see more photos at “The Disastrous Cordon Sanitaire Used on Honolulu’s Chinatown in 1900.”
* Albert Camus, The Plague
As we remember to wash our hands, we might recall that is was on this date in 1619 that slavery arrived in North America, as “20 and Odd” Blacks landed in Jamestown, Virginia on a Dutch man of war, which traded them to settlers for provisions. These first African-Americans were not technically slaves, as slavery hadn’t yet been established as an institution in the Colony. But ownership was clear, and the the custom took hold (as reflected in the wills of original purchasers, who left “Negroes in service” to their children); was enshrined in law in 1662.