Europeans in India
While Cholera killed thousands of people, it was particularly deadly for Europeans in India. While the disease claimed the lives of 0.16% of Indian soldiers, it claimed nearly 1% of the lives of the European soldiers between 1825 and 1844. As can be seen in the table below, the annual ratio of deaths per 1000 soldiers is higher on average for the European soldiers. This was concerning considering that relative to their strength, far more European soldiers' lives were being claimed than native soldiers' lives. Thankfully, due to improvements in both sanitation and therapeutic practice, the mortality rate amongst European soldiers in Bengal fell from 7.59% in 1812-31 to 6.41% in 1832-52.
From “18th Hussars” by Sam Bryggman, you can learn more about one particular unit of the European army that suffered particularly badly in the hands of cholera. Half of the Hussars were passengers on this voyage of the Clarence, which preceded their posting in Secunderabad in India.
On May 24th, 1871-the Queen’s birthday-the entire garrison had gathered on a ground in Secunderabad for a birthday parade. None of the members of the regiment were affected during the parade itself, and were not faced with any inclement weather conditions, which could have made it easier for the soldiers to succumb to the disease. This, of course, was the perception of the medical contemporaries of the time, before they had come to terms with the microbial nature of the disease. As the Queen’s birthday was also a holiday in most military stations, more toddy (an alcoholic drink) could have been consumed in celebration, some of which may have been sourced from potentially contaminated supplies. However, as there was no drunkenness reported on the day, this was ruled out by medical examiners. Ultimately, the 18th Hussars lost 34 men and 1 child (within 26 hours alone) out of 385 men, 56 women, and 108 children.
On the day of the parade, numerous people from neighboring bazaars visited. Their presence meant that they were accessing water from the Hussars’ wells with their own buckets, which could have been contaminated. In fact, in an inquiry into the state of the health of the Hussars, it was noted that the water in these wells following the day of the parade was ‘not in a satisfactory state’.
Fortunately, the 18th Hussars had experienced surgeons in their rank who had previously dealt with cholera. This outbreak lasted for 10 days, and specifically affected only the Hussars and not the other surrounding European troops. Considering that cholera is usually never localised, this makes the case of the Hussars particularly interesting.
From medical reports, the Hussars’ condition can be attributed to a few specific factors. Considering that the Hussars’ health had not been very good over their tenure in Secunderabad, it made them more susceptible to contracting the disease. Furthermore, the Hussars had also lived in decommissioned barracks that had been deemed unfit for inhabitation. The only water they had access to came from a source that could have been contaminated by travelling groups, explaining why none of the other regiments stationed around the area were affected. The wives and children of Hussars were also among those affected.
Implications of Cholera to the Europeans
Politically, the high incidence of cholera amongst the European soldiers was seen as a pressing concern, considering that a significant portion of the British army was situated in the region. It was also seen as a ‘mismanagement of the native soldiery’ as they were assumed to have brought the disease to the European soldiers.
In light of this, it is interesting to consider the Hindu perception of cholera cases in the European forces. Guilty of killing cattle and consuming beef, which were against Hindu traditions, the European’s struggle against cholera was considered as heavenly retribution. These cultural and religious interpretations are all the more relevant seeing as cholera was resistant to most therapies of the time. One army surgeon, Dr Chapman claimed that cholera ‘extorted from us the humiliating confession of our utter inability to contend with such an enemy’
Arnold, David. "Cholera." Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-century India. Berkeley: U of California, 1993 N. p. Print.
Balfour, Edward. Statistics of Cholera. Madras: Printed by C.D'Cruiz at the M.A. &. P., 1870. Print.
The Times of India 13 June 1871: n. p. Print.
The Times of India 3 June 1871: n. p. Print.
Cornish, WR An Inquiry into the Circumstances Attending an Outbreak of Cholera in HM's 18th Hussars at Secunderabad in the Month of May 1871 Madras: Printed by H. Morgan, at the Government, 1871. Print