Review: The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco – Marilyn Chase

The bubonic plague outbreaks of 1900-1908 are a forgotten footnote in San Franciscan history, lost amidst the drama of the city’s early Gold Rush years and the trauma of the great earthquake of 1906. Yet for those eight years, the city was in the grip of the United States’ first outbreak of plague, which affected almost all life in San Francisco, exacerbating existing tensions and highlighting smouldering issues of racism, xenophobia, greed, and ignorance.

This is largely the story of the public health officers who sought to understand and combat the disease, but at the same time it serves as a history in microcosm of the prevailing issues of the era – racism and xenophobia against the Chinese immigrant community, an already-insular community turning inwards upon itself in an effort to protect its sick and dying, cultural misunderstandings and lack of compassion towards an ‘alien’ culture, misguided public efforts to quarantine only resulting in more prejudice and anger, a lack of medical understanding of disease transmission, the greed of tradesmen and merchants overcoming the public good.

It was a fascinating read, particularly when focusing on the early years of the outbreak, when the majority of plague cases were centred on Chinatown. Rather than investigate the causes and carriers of plague, as later public health officials were to do so successfully, the early efforts focused on quarantining the entire Chinese community, blaming poor hygiene, living conditions and different customs of the Chinese for the outbreak of disease and dangerously scapegoating an already much mistreated and vilified community.

Indeed, the legacy of those poorly handled, ignorant efforts to contain not the disease but its victims are with California still. Because of the political backbiting, greed of tradesmen and merchants, wilful denial and lack of support for the public health officials, the opportunity to contain the spread of the plague was lost. The bacteria spread from urban rats to country wildlife, and beyond and beyond. Even today plague exists across a broad swathe of the American South and West, largely borne these days by the ubiquitous prairie dog. The US is among the seven countries in the world that continue to report plague cases every year.

Leave a Reply