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Fighting the plague: history repeats itself

April 12, 2021

It is strange how often history repeats itself. As the Covid-19 pandemic has swept around the world over the last year I have often wondered how Thomas Kelly, the Irish doctor whose remarkable story I told in Fighting for the Empire would have reacted.

He was at the epicentre of a battle to stop the plague spreading to India 115 years ago and had to combat plague deniers, opposition to vaccinations and more.

Captain Thomas Kelly was in his mid-30s and serving with the Indian medical Service. He had just returned from Tibet and was already overdue his seven year leave back to Ireland, which he had left in January 1897. Instead of returning to the Emerald Isle, his superiors packed him off to the remote province of Seistan in Persia (present day Iran) where the plague was decimating the local population and threatening the trade routes between Iran and India.

It was dangerous. Previous medical officers had caught the disease and died. Over two years the population of the town of Nasratabad, where Kelly was based, had been reduced from 2500 to 300.

Kelly knew what he had to do to eradicate the plague and it included persuading locals to burn the clothes and possessions of plague victims. This was deliberately twisted by local religious leaders who started rumours flying that the British doctor and his helpers were burning the Koran, dressing the women in nice clothes so they could seduce them and using new medicines – inoculations – to spread the disease.

Rampaging mob
Fear, ignorance and religion are a potent mix and on 27 March 1906 a mob of 500 started rampaging through the streets of Nasratabad, quickly burning down a small Belgian hospital before turning on the British consulate and Kelly’s temporary laboratory, where just six British officers and 20 Indian sepoys were stationed.

Kelly and the commanding officer, Captain Macpherson, went outside in an attempt to pacify the mob but the situation was already beyond control and they were beaten and stoned, retreating, bruised and battered into the main consulate building as the troops inside fired warning shots over the heads of the rioters.

The rifle shots were sufficient to alert the Russians in their consulate in the immediately adjacent sister town of Husseinabad to the seriousness of the trouble that was brewing. They were in a rather stronger position in terms of military forces as a detachment of Cossacks [Russian cavalry] had recently been posted there and they were quickly on their way to disperse the baying crowd, some of whom were by then on the roof of the besieged consulate with flaming torches. The Russians knew that if they burnt out the British the riot would gather momentum and they would be the next target: they were protecting their own interests as much as those of Kelly and his British colleagues.

News of the attack on the consulate quickly spread round the world, hitting the British papers just four days later.

“BRITISH CONSULATE MOBBED. AN OUTBREAK IN SEISTAN. The following telegram, says Reuter, has been received in St. Petersburg from Teheran:—”A fanatical Persian doctor named Kukema incited the population of Seistan against the European doctors, who had begun to take the plague sufferers from their houses to the hospitals, destroyed the medicines and surgical appliances, and attacked the British Consulate. The Consul himself and the British doctor were beaten with sticks and the Customs-house was only saved by the timely arrival of the Russian Consul with Cossacks.

“The responsibility for the outrage rests with the Governor of Khorassan, who, acting contrary to the orders of the Persian Government, sent the fanatic to Seistan to declare that no epidemic of plague existed in the province and that the reports of its prevalence were the inventions of Europeans.”

It took two years but Kelly rid Seistan of the plague.

The Kelly story is told in Fighting for the Empire.

From → History

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