hawaii plague

A small group of islands with a large, densely-packed population, and which is a crossroads for international travel, is at very high risk of catastrophic disease. Hawaii is such a place. Epidemics of diseases ravaged the islands in the first decades after Captain Cook’s arrival and particularly after missionaries began arriving. One disease, though, never touched Hawaii: the bubonic plague, which continued to claim a surprising number of victims worldwide even at the turn of the 20th century.

In June 1899, however, a passenger aboard a Japanese ship in Honolulu harbor died of the plague. It seemed to be an isolated case, but then in December people living in Honolulu’s cramped Chinatown quarter began coming down with the disease. Authorities of the relatively new American territorial government were alarmed. They feared that the plague could do to Hawaii what the Black Death had done to Europe in the 14th century. Eager to stamp out the pestilence before it got started, the Hawaiian government gave the Board of Health sweeping powers to do whatever it deemed necessary to fight the disease. This grant of power turned out to be a fateful decision.

Suddenly, just days before 1899 turned to 1900, three doctors found themselves the de facto rulers of Hawaii: Nathaniel Emerson, Francis Day and Clifford Wood. Any edict they issued and that could be justified in the name of public health was the equivalent of law. They ordered garbage to be burned, the sewer system overhauled and Chinatown, the epicenter of the plague, quarantined, effectively trapping thousands of people in a small urban area. Emerson, Day and Wood, all white men, subscribed to a kind of thinking very common in those times, that non-whites were more likely to carry disease than white people. In Honolulu in 1900, already rife with racial and ethnic tension, this judgment proved tragic. The Chinese community, the doctors believed, was responsible for the plague, and the streets of Chinatown would be the battlefield where the disease would be defeated.

chinatown burning honolulu

A tragedy in the making: Honolulu’s Chinatown burns–on doctor’s orders–in January 1900.

The doctors ordered the buildings where plague-infected Chinese lived to be burned. Forty-one small fires were set at the behest of the Board of Health. Their decisions were already controversial enough, but on January 20, 1900, the winds suddenly changed. Fires began leaping between buildings. Soon almost all of Chinatown was ablaze. The uncontrollable fire burned for 17 days, ultimately destroying 38 acres of the center of Honolulu. When the flames were finally extinguished, 7,000 people, most of them Chinese, were homeless and had to be housed in a refugee camp, which itself was a plague hazard. A total of 40 people were dead of the plague.

The plague fire was extremely controversial and ignited racial and political tensions that had long been simmering in Honolulu’s complicated multicultural society. Many people filed damage claims against the city and the Board of Health, and some went so far as to suggest that the plague itself was a ruse to justify burning down Chinatown as a form of racialized urban renewal. The plague was real enough, however, and Drs. Emerson, Day and Wood probably did act out of what they thought was medical necessity at the time. The problem, though, was that medical and scientific knowledge in 1900 was infused with attitudes of racial hierarchy. Disease was the fault of darker peoples, not whites. It was almost inevitable that, armed with such unfettered power and justified by science, the Board of Health would act disproportionately against non-white citizens.

The plague fire was tragic, but Hawaii was spared a massive bubonic plague epidemic. Whether it was due to the fires, the quarantine or just good luck we may never know. Nevertheless the plague fire illustrates the very complex issues that arise when dealing with disasters and environmental challenges in places where disparate cultures come into contact with one another. Hawaii is a crossroads of peoples, races, politics, ideologies, economies, societies, and organisms. How they’ll react when bottled up together is often hard to predict. The story of these interactions is the engine that has driven modern Hawaiian history.

History professor Jim Mohr, who I know personally, wrote the single best work on the plague fire, called simply Plague and Fire. It’s here on Amazon. Highly recommended!