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Choleric Times

A remarkable book, brilliant in content. It could become a monumental work with some serious editing.

Choleric Times
Uncertain Life And Sure Death: Medicine And Mahamaari In Maritime Bombay
By Kalpish Ratna
Maritime History Society Pages: 366; Rs. 500
Who could this doctor be, who writes so knowledgeably on the great sailing voyages that brought Europe to Asia? Kalpish Ratna, the author, is really two doctors, Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, who have written an unusual chronicle of the great voyages and the exchange of cargoes that created the new wealthy classes of the 16th to the 19th centuries. Overlaid on the trade narrative is the story of disease that decimated cities and empires, sometimes carried in ships, by either cargo or humans, but more often mistaken to be the import from dirtier, inferior civilisations.

The book begins with a charming research of what we know as Salsette—the land between Colaba point and the waterway that connects Thana creek, past Ghodbunder to Bassein. A corruption of Shatshats (sixty-six) to Shashti and to Salsette, it describes the six islands which were converted into the single landmass of Bombay by the Hornby Vellard, a landfill project ordered by the Governor, William Hornby, in 1782 and completed in 1838. Into this bustling commercial city enters, first cholera, then plague, smallpox and scurvy, the curse of sailors world-wide.

The new insights on what has been known earlier of the great voyages, provided by the medical knowledge of the authors, gives an entirely new twist to the old tales. Vitamin C, we are told, is depleted in the body when there is no fresh intake in six weeks, and scurvy could kill entire ships’ crews. Both Vasco-da-Gama and Magellan observed that fresh oranges cured scurvy, but neither researched further. Although Cook’s crew in 1768 had fewer illnesses from scurvy because they were fed pickled cabbage, celery and vegetables, it was only in 1795 that the East India Company accepted lime juice and oranges as compulsory sailors’ rations.

Cholera as an epidemic was first noticed by Europeans when slave ships landed in the Caribbean and the Americas. Caused by the appalling conditions on the ships, the disease was blamed on the slaves. So also did Europe generally refer to India and Indians as the source of cholera because of the six cholera pandemics in India between 1817 and 1923: "Something had to be done to ensure the foul miasmas of Hindoostan never tainted the pure sweet air of Europe". Little did the Europeans know that Indians thought similarly of Western civilisation that went without a daily bath. In 1894 Haffkine, a Frenchman, developed the cholera vaccine and the bacillus was named after the Italian researcher Pacini, ignored by a sceptical world since 1854.

The mother of all epidemics was clearly plague, and Bombay was sought to be protected by quarantining incoming ships, in the belief that the cargo brought the infection. Medicine and commerce clashed as merchants protested the 40-day quarantine. An early example of biological warfare is described, as the Uzbek general Jani Beg fires the rotting corpse of his plague-infected soldier from a catapult into the Italian trading fortress of Kaffa on the Black Sea coast, creating a stampede of fleeing plague-infected Italians all over Europe.

The meeting of commerce, exploration and medicine produces a remarkable book, brilliant in content. It could become a monumental work with some serious editing.


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