University of British Columbia: Graduate Paper (2012)
In Plague and Fire (2005), James Mohr describes the efforts of Hawaiian public health officers to contain the spread of bubonic plague by burning to the ground the buildings where its victims had lived and worked. Like a Chekhovian gun introduced in the first act, this policy predictably proved disastrous. Mohr describes how, on the morning of January 20th, 1900, sparks from a blaze set by Honolulu’s fire department spread to neighboring rooftops in the city’s Chinatown, quickly igniting a conflagration that would leave the entire district devastated. Describing the aftermath, Mohr laments the destruction of the iconic Kaumakapili church, which, in the wake of fire’s destruction, “loomed like a medieval façade.”
Hawaii’s Board of Health, Mohr asserts, had acted with the best of intentions. The board was determined to take drastic action in the face of what historians have called the third plague pandemic. Spreading from the interior of China in 1894 to Indian and Japanese ports by 1896, bubonic plague ignited transnational fears that the legendary Black Death would wreak havoc in an age of global shipping. American exceptionalism would not protect the United States from this medieval scourge; the plague made landfall in recently annexed Hawaii in 1899, and in San Francisco the following year. Los Angeles experienced its own late occurrence in 1924. Recent studies by James Mohr, Myron Echenberg, Marilyn Chase and Nayan Shah have explored the third pandemic’s impact on the United States, a subject that has traditionally received little attention from historians, perhaps because of the low death toll it exacted there.
The third pandemic’s name implies the existence of two similar episodes in the past. Historians have often referred to the first of these as the Plague of Justinian, for the Byzantine emperor it afflicted. The first pandemic emerged in Egypt around 542 CE and flared throughout Europe during repeated outbreaks that recurred for the next two hundred years. The Plague of Justinian has also been neglected by scholars, though in this case a lack of primary sources is likely the cause, rather than a low mortality rate. Long overshadowed by the Black Death, the first pandemic is at last receiving limited scholarly attention; Lester K. Little’s Plague and the End of Antiquity (2001) is the first volume wholly dedicated to this earliest bubonic plague outbreak.