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Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu's Chinatown by James C. Mohr. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

 ISBN 0195162315 Hardback, 235 pages.

Reviewed by Dr Brian Ireland, Senior lecturer in American History, University of Glamorgan.

Book jacket

In June 1899, the Nippon Maru dropped anchor in Honolulu Harbour. Its concerned captain informed the Hawaiian authorities of a fatality among passengers, a Chinese man who had passed away from an unknown illness. An inspection of infected tissue samples indicated the man died from bubonic plague, the dreaded disease which killed half the population of Europe in the fourteenth century. The ship was quarantined for seven days, and after no further cases were apparent, was allowed to proceed to San Francisco. During this time, however, it seems at least one plague-infested rat came ashore. Within weeks, residents of Honolulu’s Chinatown began noticing an unusual number of dead and dying rodents in the area. Soon after, people started falling ill too. An unknown number died in the tight-knit community, comprised mostly of Chinese, Japanese and native Hawaiians, before the first official diagnosis was confirmed in December 1899. You Chong, a healthy 22-year-old Chinese bookkeeper, died within a few days of falling ill. He displayed tell-tale symptoms of swollen, painful lymph glands and high fever. An autopsy revealed internal haemorrhaging. It was now clear; the bubonic plague had arrived in Hawaii.

James C. Mohr (University of Oregon) documents the efforts of the Honolulu Board of Health to combat the plague, which typically kills 75% of those infected (95%, if it progresses to the more lethal and infectious pneumonic plague). Given absolute authority over the Hawaiian Islands by the fledgling ‘Republic of Hawaii’— an all-white interim government, set up after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy — the Board of Health used its authority to quarantine Chinatown, establish refugee camps, close schools and businesses, limit travel around the city and between islands, and burn the belongings and dwellings of those exposed to the plague. At first, the measures seemed to work: although 100 people had died of the plague by mid-December, no new cases were reported, and the Chinatown quarantine was lifted on 18 December. This was, however, a false dawn. Over the Christmas and New Year period, more residents fell ill and died. Under pressure from Hawaii President Sanford Dole, who wanted a speedy resolution to the crisis threatening to undermine the Republic’s application for full US territorial status, and from white business interests, who wanted Chinatown levelled so their own businesses could expand, the Board of Health ordered more controlled burns. However, on January 20, 1900, firemen lost control of one of these fires, and the whole of Chinatown went up in flames. An area of 50 square blocks was devastated, 7000 residents were forced to flee, and an estimated $3 million damage was caused. Although no one was killed by the inferno, the Board of Health now faced both a health and a refugee crisis. During the next few months, it struggled to find temporary housing and food for the dispossessed. Fortunately, the local community responded generously. New quarantine camps were opened, containing disinfectant showers. New sewers and sanitation sites were proposed, and a crematorium was built to dispose of the dead. Slowly, the situation improved: reports of new plague cases began to trail off, and by the end of April, all restrictions were lifted. The emergency was over.

Mohr’s account of the crisis is compelling. His detailed description of the plague’s spread through Chinatown, and the Board of Health’s efforts to combat it, builds to a dramatic denouement, as Chinatown is incinerated. As the drama unfolds, Mohr carefully weighs the options available to the Board of Health, more often than not, concurring with its decisions. He provides a balanced account of the overthrow of the legitimate Hawaiian monarchy by white business interests, and of the racial tensions caused by waves of economic immigrants from China, Japan, and the United States. The author’s skilful handling of such difficult issues makes Plague and Fire a valuable addition to our knowledge of Hawaiian history.

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